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From warring rutabagas to human beef: the wonderful world of typos

Years ago I learned a valuable twofold editorial lesson: respect the precision of a good keyboarder, and don’t get cute in the margins. The project was an encyclopedia of Japan, and it was back in the era of editing only on paper. One morning, I sat down with the freshly typed arts entries and my eye went to the article on the Noh play Atsumori. I immediately saw an opportunity for levity, to be shared only with the keyboarder. I knew that the pages would be sent to one of the nameless women who did all our typing, and I smiled at the thought of giving one of them a laugh.

An ode to Dean Martin gone wrong

As it turned out, the keyboarder was more professional than I was. She did her job perfectly, which was to key what the editors wrote on the page and not to identify frivolous content. The next time I saw the Atsumori article was after the printer sent us pages for a final proofreading. There on the page, just as I had handwritten it on the manuscript, was the article’s new, incredibly long, multi-line, boldface title: When the Moon Hits Your Eye Like a Big Pizza Pie, Atsumori.  To this day, I am grateful to have been the one to amend that page before it became an international incident. The American publisher I worked for had brokered a major deal with a leading Japanese publisher to create the encyclopedia, and I’m quite sure neither would have been terribly amused.

If you’ve ever typed type, you’ve probably typed a few types of typos

Had I not had the good fortune of intercepting my little-joke-gone-awry, it would have been impossible to defend. Mistakes do happen, but that was not exactly what one might call a typo! I will say this, however: ever since, I have been especially appreciative of how entertaining “legitimate mistakes” can be.   The printed error is as old as printing itself, and every time we in publishing get a letter-perfect, content-perfect page “out the door,” we’ve beaten the odds. One of the earliest errors of note is from a 1631 printing of the King James Bible. Infamously known as the Wicked Bible, it’s missing “not” in the 7th Commandment, thus: “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Even a single letter can blow up in your face. The difference between “wining” (as in “wining and dining”) and “whining” (as in complaining) is huge, but typographically it’s one missed keystroke. I once read (and will never forget!) this in a parenting book: “If you want your child to stop wining, then you need to stop giving her a bottle every time she demands one.” Another, much more common, typo that’s always good for a chuckle is “public” without the “l”—I’m sure it cannot be calculated how much “pubic exposure” readers of English have been exposed to.

Mispelled foood tendz 2 kerb mye apettight

If a letter isn’t missing, it may just be wrong. Simple typos of this ilk can wreak all sorts of havoc. Ask anyone who drank my sister’s first attempt to make cocoa from scratch. She was only 9, so why wouldn’t she trust a recipe that called for “a dish of salt”? Misspelled words relating to food can be disturbing. I always bypass the Hunan beef if the menu reads “Human beef.” And I’m not willing to have “gilled chicken” on my salad (I also cringe at the occasionally mis-typed phrase “when the chickens come home to roast”). Only recently did I decline a serving of soup made with “leaks.”

Lonny can go to hell, and those rutabagas got what they deserved

Even if spelling is flawless, other unintentional things can happen on the printed page. I recall reading a cheesy mystery in which a sentence went something like this: “After leaving the confessional, Lonny went straight to Hellmann’s Point, where McNabb was waiting.” Because it was at the bottom of a page, the sentence was broken and carried over. What I read before flipping the page was “After leaving the confessional, Lonny went straight to Hell-.”

Another mischief-maker is the “global change.” Americanizing British material as I often do, I applaud the ease of programmatically changing, say, “colour” to “color” throughout an entire book. But not without vigilance! I once encountered an encyclopedic entry about Charlie Chaplin in which he was identified as a “streetcarp.” We had globally changed every instance of British “tram” to American “streetcar,” so Chaplin, the endearing “little tramp,” had become the “little streetcarp.” Another global gaffe involved the turnip-like vegetables we call “rutabagas.” The Brits call them “swedes,” so history got rewritten, as in this line about St. Alexander Nevsky: “He defeated the Rutabagas on the banks of the Neva River in 1240…”

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