November 01, 2007

The Muttonhead Quail Movement

Today on OUPblog I delve into a topic I've discussed on several occasions on Language Log (here, here, here, and here): the modern phenomenon of spellchecker-induced slipups, a.k.a. "the Cupertino effect." (We can also think of this as a computer-aided genus of "incorrections," i.e., corrections that are themselves incorrect.) Though much of the column covers old ground, there are a few new Cupertino-isms in the mix. My favorite recent example is Reuters accidentally referring to Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement as the Muttonhead Quail Movement.

Speaking of spelling, I'm a bit surprised that MQM, one of the largest political parties in Pakistan, chooses to transliterate its Arabic-derived Urdu name متحدہ قومی ('United National') as Muttahida Quami rather than Muttahida Qaumi. It looks like the typical transliteration of قومی ('national') as qaumi has been "incorrected" to quami somewhere along the line, based on Anglophone expectations that u should always follow q. But this seems to be a long-standing respelling in Roman Urdu: the old nationalist newspaper Qaumi Awaz, for instance, shows up transliterated as Quami Awaz in dozens of books and periodicals on Google Book Search. I'd imagine the quami spelling encourages speakers not familiar with Arabic or Urdu to pronounce the word as /kwami/ rather than /qaumi/. And in the Reuters goof, quami abets the Cupertino effect, since it's closer to quail!

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 1, 2007 10:45 AM