Techwit: Spell Czech king for miss takes

Posted: Sunday, June 16, 2002

Bee holed!

Wear wood wee bee without the my tea spell checker? God only nose.

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Urban myth is packed with spell checking faux pas. Like the school board secretary somewhere in New Jersey who, supposedly, mailed out a successfully spell-checked document to more than 5,000 people that began, "Dear pubic school employee." It went downhill from their. I mean "they're." Err, "there." Any weigh...

Or like all those gaffes that escape the proofreader's best intentions and fly just below the radar of the spellchecker. Here are some of my favorites. They come from the church bulletin archives of St. Pius X Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas:

• "There will be a regular monthly Deacon's Meeting next Sunday morning. It will be gin with breakfast at 7:30 A.M."

• "Potluck Supper: prayer and medication to follow."

• "Smile at someone who is hard to love. Say 'hell' to someone who doesn't care much about you."

But I think spell checkers do more than betray our confidence. They possess extraordinary intelligence and amplify our subconscious. Consider the following statements from resumes collected by Forbes Magazine, all of which escape spell check detection and seem intensely Freudian:

• As indicted, I have over five years of analyzing investments.

• Instrumental in ruining entire operation for a Midwest chain store.

• Received a plague for Salesperson of the Year.

Not only are spell checkers intelligent, but they can also be extraordinarily intuitive, perhaps even psychic. As proof, Phil Latham from Cox News Service notes that when his spell checker processed the word "Enron" it returned both "moron" and "ingrown." When it checked "Dynegy," the company that tried unsuccessfully to buy Enron, it returned "Denied," and "Donkey." Spell checking "Andrew Fastow," Enron's former head financial officer, returned "Andrew Fiasco." It's sort of spooky.

But spell checkers are at their best and spookiest when they change words they don't know into somewhat coherent gibberish. For example, take the JabberWock, a nonsense poem by Lewis Caroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. The last two lines of the original reads: "All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe." My spell checker interpreted this as: "All missy were the boor goofs, And the mom rates out-grab." It makes an eerie sort of sense, raising the specter once again that our machines are trying to talk to us if only we knew how to listen.

So, what's the future? A combination of computer keyboard as Ouija Board and spell checker as divine oracle. You will ask your spell checker a question of personal significance, enter a state of meditative semi-consciousness and allow your fingers to rove over your keyboard to be "guided" to type; your spell checker will discern the deeper meaning in your words. Using a beta version of such a program I asked the question, "What is the future of Microsoft share prices?" I was guided to type "dfjk I fjhi eyum," which my psychic spell checker interpreted as, "The future is knot sir ten." Amazing.

All of this brings me to Marshall McLuhan, who said every technology was somehow an extension of the human being. A car extends our backs by giving us a trunk to carry things in, our ears by providing a radio, our feet by giving us wheels. But cars also extend our ability to smell bad and make loud offensive noises. So, what does the spell checker extend? Our misplaced trust. Our desire to believe that our machines really do want to help us. Spell checkers lead us to believe that something we never liked to do in the first place - spell correctly - was being taken care of for us. Good thing spell checkers weren't around when the United States was first coming into being, or the Constitution might have begun, "Wee the pea pull..."

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © Jason Ohler 2002.

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