Most decent computer document programs include “spell-checker” software on which students and even some professional writers quickly come to rely.
As they type away, the spell-checker miraculously sniffs out words that appear to be improperly spelled. It does this in nanoseconds by comparing each one against its storehouse of correctly spelled words. For poor or tentative spellers, this is the best thing since sliced bread.
Some computer spell-sleuths just highlight suspicious words and let the writer decide what to do. More assertive programs barge right in and change the spelling according to what they deduce belongs there.
As I was batting out the previous sentence, for instance, I deliberately mistyped the word “assertive,” giving it just one “s.” My spell-checker fixed it before I had even finished the word.
If I absolutely DID want it spelled “asertive” for some reason, I’d have had to stop and backspace out the second “s.” This would have irritated the haughty spell-checker, which would immediately underline “asertive” in red, as if to say, “Don’t blame ME for this, you bonehead.”
After enough of these battles of wits, some writers just let the spell-checkers “fix” whatever words they see fit to fix.
Reliance on these electronic copy editors is producing a nation of lazy spellers. They’ve discovered that even those who can’t spell “cat” can now crank out presentable papers.
But spell-checkers can do more dramatic damage. Three years ago, I told our VOA audience about what happened to some unfortunate folks at Middletown Area High School in Pennsylvania.
Like most U.S. secondary schools and colleges, Middletown High publishes a yearbook full of photographs and stories about its students, faculty, and activities. Yearbooks are keepsakes that can be touchstones of memories for generations to come.
The company producing Middletown High’s annual book deployed the hottest and latest electronic proofreading software to edit the yearbook’s text. A little too hot, as it turned out. Its hyper-aggressive spell-checker ran amok, overriding and replacing several people’s names. The spell program turned poor Max Zupanovic, for instance, into “Max Supernova.” How did Zupanovic become Supernova? Ask the lamebrain computer.
Since the spell-checker almost certainly had never encountered a “bendgen,” Cameron Bendgen became “Cameron Bandage.” Imagine Kathy Carbaugh’s surprise, too, when the published yearbook identified her as “Kathy Airbag.”
The school learned, too late, that spell-checkers don’t always know what to do with uncommon proper names.
Good thing I or one of my kids didn’t go to Middletown High. You’d be reading about the exploits of “Ted Lampshade” or “Ted Landfill.”
The yearbook publisher breezily reported that his spell-checkers make these mistakes all the time. No biggie. He offered stickers with the correct spellings to paste over the mistaken names. And wouldn’t THAT be attractive!
Thus in Middletown, Pennsylvania, at least, spell-checkers are now held in somewhat lower esteem than sliced bread.
So the Airbag family and I don’t trust spell-checkers. But I’ll tell you something I would love to welcome into my computer life:
Not a spell-checker but a fact-checker, because I — like you, no doubt — receive an incessant drizzle of e-mails from friends and acquaintances, purporting to delight and amaze me with unusual, or at least plausible, “facts.”
For instance: It is impossible to lick your elbow.
OK, bad example. You don’t need a fact-checker to tell you this is overwhelmingly true, even if a few contortionists with tongues like the rock band KISS’s Gene Simmons have managed to do it. You tried it, too — unsuccessfully, to the amusement of others in the office — the minute you got the e-mail.
Consider some other “astounding facts” that arrived in my computer in-box today:
• Caramel-colored Coca-Cola, the world’s best-known soft drink, I was assured in the incoming e-mail, with no evidence or qualifiers whatsoever, was once a sickly green!
• Long ago in English police files, foot-patrol officers out on the streets were listed as Constables On Patrol. Hence the enduring term “cops.”
• Alaska is the U.S. state with the highest percentage of people who walk to work.
• Africa, which some of us who don’t live there often think of as blanketed by impenetrable jungle and blistering deserts, is only 28 percent wilderness. And North America, which we can assure you is packed with cities, highways, and people, is 38 percent wild!
• The average number of people who are airborne over the United States in any given hour is 61,000.
• Intelligent people have more zinc and copper in their hair than do those of lesser intellect.
• The first novel written on a typewriter was Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
• Taken together, San Francisco’s distinctive cable cars are America’s only mobile national monument.
• Each king in a playing-card deck represents a great monarch: David, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar.
• In equestrian-statue code, if the horse has both front legs in the air, its rider died in battle. If the horse is raising one front leg, the rider was wounded in combat but survived.
If all four of the steed’s legs are planted on the ground, the person died of natural causes.
• Most U.S. boat owners give a name to their vessels, and the most popular choice is “Obsession.”
• If you were to spell out numbers — “one,” “two,” “six hundred-seventy-five,” etc. — you would have to reach the number “one thousand” before you would use the letter “A.”
• The only food that doesn’t spoil is honey.
And there were many more.
These seem believable, especially when you happen to know that at least a couple of them are true.
Years ago in San Francisco, I confirmed with the National Park Service that, indeed, cable cars are America’s only moving national monument. And in 2006, no less an authority than our Census Bureau affirmed that a greater proportion of Alaskans than people in any other state do in fact walk to work — a surprise, given the incredible and often snow-covered distances between many inhabited places in the Great White North.
But a bunch of these factoids are unbelievable, all right, for good reason. They are old wives’ tales or outright fabrications. The folks at the Coca-Cola Company, for example, took the time to spread word on the Internet that from the moment that Atlanta, Georgia, pharmacist John Pemberton whipped up a refreshing mixture of water, sugar, cocoa leaves, cola nuts, and cold carbonated water in 1886, Coke has had a brownish hue.
The horse-leg code for equestrian statues is hogwash — or horsewash — too. Telltale proof comes from Clark Mills’s three identical statues of Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, mounted across from the White House in Washington, D.C.; in New Orleans itself; and on the capitol grounds in Nashville in Jackson’s home state of Tennessee.
On them, Jackson’s horse is rearing, which, by code, would mean that “Old Hickory” died in battle. Not hardly. He lived on for 30 years, serving two terms as president.
If I had had a trusty fact-checker when that e-mail came in, I’d have spotted such misstatements and falsehoods in a jif.
I’m a busy man, after all. Who has time, while running a comb through my zinc- and copper-filled hair, to google each factoid, let alone look in a relic known as a book? Besides, search engines are the SOURCE of some of the preposterous “facts” that fly about the Internet.
Until a magic, fact-checking “app” arrives, I invite YOU to research the unverified items mentioned above and let me know what you find.
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Preposterous. Absurd. Something that no one would believe.
Run amok. To rush about wildly, often attacking everything in your path. The word “amok” has Malaysian roots, referring to a state of madness and uncontrollable rage.