February 17, 2008

More spellchecker fun

Two pieces of e-mail yesterday on the oddities of spellcheckers.  Can you guess what happened when

Piotr Orbis Proszynski put benefactive through his Outlook spellchecker; and

Bruce Webster wrote e-mail about a cat named Tigger via Thunderbird mail; and

the word in question wasn't in the spellchecker's dictionary?

Apparently, there's not much close to benefactive; the only thing Proszynski's spellchecker could suggest was generative.  My Word for Mac spellchecker does the same.  At least, Proszynski remarked, the spellchecker offered a linguistics term.

I tried a few more grammatical terms, more or less at random, on my Mac, and found that ergative and illative were in its dictionary, but (no surprise) semelfactive was not -- simulative was the only alternative offered -- nor was antipassive, for which the entertaining ant passive was offered.  Other terms elicited a richer set of substitutes:

allative: illative, ablative, elative, ablatives, allusive

inessive: inside, intensive, emissive, indecisive, inactive, insider, insides, immersive

But on to Webster and Tigger.  This time the surprise was what was IN the spellchecker's dictionary.

Tigger: nigger, rigger, digger, bigger, trigger, tiger

My own spellchecker won't go there (but it preserves caps):

Tigger: Tiger, Trigger, Tigers, Digger

Webster wonders, "do any spell checkers have lists of words that are in the dictionary but that they won't suggest?"  I see that my own spellchecker DOES have nigger in its dictionary.  Maybe it blocks the word as a suggested replacement, or maybe its search algorithm just treats it as too far from Tigger.

[Added 2/18/08: five people (so far) have written to verify that many spellcheckers, including various releases of the spellchecker for Microsoft Word, do indeed block taboo and slur vocabulary as replacements.  The alternative would be to remove these words from the spellchecker's dictionary.  But then, as Jeff Erickson points out to me, the program would underline these words in red when they appeared in text, thus drawing attention to them.]

[Added 2/18/08: Bexquisite reports that a Firefox spellchecker suggested as replacements for fuchsia: Auschwitz, obfuscate.  Not at all helpful.]

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 17, 2008 02:04 PM