October 07, 2006

Unkempt secrets

In the Oct. 5 edition of "Post Politics Hour," the Washington Post's online chat with the newspaper's political reporters, this week's host Peter Baker fielded the following reader comment:

David Bowie brought this to the attention of the American Dialect Society mailing list as a potential eggcorn, noting:

If you read this as phonological confusion between unkept and unkempt, and the meaning of unkempt as involving messiness (and this is certainly a messy situation for a number of people!), it works.

Though "unkempt secret" certainly works as an eggcorn, what if this is actually a spellchecker artifact — namely, yet another manifestation of the Cupertino effect?

The custom dictionary for Microsoft Word (at least the 2002 version) doesn't recognize unkept and helpfully suggests unkempt:

Like other chats hosted by newspaper websites, the Post Politics Hour is a moderated affair, with a queue of emailed questions from readers filtered by the staff before appearing online. I would guess the moderators run each question quickly through a spellchecker, either initially or later on when the transcript of the chat appears. So it would be easy for a spellcheck goof like unkempt for unkept to creep in.

Google turns up several dozen additional unkempt secrets, and there are even more unkempt promises, or promises unkempt. Some examples appear to be intentionally playful substitutions, but many others are clearly slipups, either of the mental or computer-generated variety. In such cases it can be difficult to delineate what is poetic, what is eggcornish, and what is Cupertinoesque.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at October 7, 2006 12:12 AM