Blogs > HNN > Jonathan Tremblay: Do you know the long, sordid history of typos?

Apr 29, 2010 11:32 am

Jonathan Tremblay: Do you know the long, sordid history of typos?

[Jonathan Tremblay is a historian and a Breaking News Editor for the History News Network.]

Penguin Publishing Australia has recently released a pasta-cooking book that has shocked everyone and forced a rapid callback and destruction of all copies. A typo or error of inattention, if you will, slipped into the recipe for Prosciutto and Sardine Tagliatelle that called for “salt and freshly-ground black people”. Indeed, browsing the rest of the book gives us an indication that that last word should be “pepper”. No one has suggested that Penguin publishing actually condones racist cannibalism but the book must nevertheless be (hilariously) pulped for the shocking ingredient due to mounting calls of outrage and discrimination.

That a typo could so provoke large groups of people, waste such large sums of capital ($18,000) and be an instant pop culture phenomenon (In the top-5 stories of BBC News for over a week) is not an isolated incident. As we have seen time and again, a good proof-reading can be essential to avoid disaster, ridicule or just general misinformation.

Here are a few examples from the illustrious and unintentionally fascinating history of the typo (or misprint, mistranslation, misinterpretation, Freudian slip, slip of the tongue…).

1. The True Number of the Beast (~300 AD): As the Bible’s New Testament (and the band Iron Maiden) have told us, the Devil’s number of choice was “Six hundred threescore and six” or 666. Recent scholarship has unveiled the oldest version of this passage known to man in a second-century manuscript. Lo and behold the famed number of the beast is indicated as “616″. It is possible that this early version of the Book of Revelations was mistaken seeing as all these versions were painstakingly transcribed by hand, copy by copy, and therefore human error was a very real concern. That being said, this being the earliest copy, certain specialists suggest that the following copy got it wrong and that, with Gutenberg’s XVth century printing press, the 666, along with who knows how many ‘mistakes’ have been immortalized as canon. On the bright said, all those metal bands weren’t actually taking orders from the Prince of Darkness, they were just taking the (current) Bible’s word for it.

2. The Wicked Bible (1631) – The King James Bible was set to be published in yet another English edition, one of the many hundreds over the centuries; surely a few of them would let a typo or misprint in here and there (it is a very long book and this is ages before Word’s autocorrect). The result of the typo here however was so blasphemous (and surely hilarious) that the entire edition was deemed cursed and it remains known today as the “Wicked Bible”. The Typo? In Exodus, the sixth commandment is conspicuously missing the word “not”. The Wicked Bible of 1631 thus indicates God’s commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery”. As you might imagine the few (single-digits) remaining copies of this edition are all but priceless on today’s collector’s market.

3. A glass slipper? (1697) – Frenchman Charles Perreault almost assuredly borrowed from ancient lore and oral tradition but we credit him for the basis of our modern Cinderella story. The wicked stepsisters, the prince, the fairy Godmother and the glass slipper were all here in this first and French version. One question that may come to mind is why glass? Not only would it be uncomfortable and out of place for the time, it would surely shatter at the first step. Nevertheless, we’ve accepted the glass slipper for centuries and it has become so iconic it no longer even needs Cinderella; it is a pop culture reference on its own. The problem is that the slipper was never made of glass (nor was it a slipper). Her “Soulier de vair” was in fact a shoe made of fur. A mistranslation took “vair”, an archaic term for a pelt, and took it to mean “verre”, the French term for glass. All in all, the moral of Cinderella’s story remains undisturbed but it is interesting to see our most stable of common knowledge revealed as false due to minor mistakes and an unquestioning audience.

4. Pennsylvania IS hard to spell (1751) – Destined to adorn the Philadelphia Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell has come to symbolize the pinnacle of American liberty and freedom. Look closely enough however and you may just find American history’s most visible yet least noticed typo. On the 2000 lbs behemoth is written “…By order of the assembly of the province of Pensylvania for the State House…”. Again, it really doesn’t change anything but certainly puts a smile on my face. Words come and go but writings on national treasures will be (hilariously) incorrect and preserved as such for many centuries.

5. Neil Armstrong’s redundancy (1969) – I was not born at the time but remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday. That day in June 1969, ‘we’ reached the moon and everything would change forever. Although things stayed relatively the same, most of this event has passed on to pop culture and common knowledge. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the other guy (Michael Collins), “The Eagle has landed” and of course “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. There is a slight problem with that last one however; it doesn’t really mean anything. What happened is that Armstrong had been thinking of the perfect words to immortalize his (and by extension our) timeless feat but, as happens, he sort of messed it up and forget the ‘a’ “…for A man…” which makes a lot more sense. Armstrong later said he “would hope history would grant me leeway for dropping the syllable”. In the end, we have not only excused his omission but we all unquestioningly remember his mistake as the defining phrase of the space race.

6. An online typo worth $150 billion (2002) – In 1996, Larry Paige and Sergei Brin attended Stanford University and teamed up to create an Internet search engine. Using complex statistical and mathematical models yet simplifying design and accessibility, they thought they had a real winner that could go up against the biggest of Yahoos and Altavistas. Having almost completed the technical design of it all, the boys needed a product name. They focused on the amplitude of search results and settled on a number to represent their engine.  They chose ten duotrigintillion or ten to the 100th power or what was simply called a googol. Paige thought it was perfect and immediately tried to reserve the domain name. Unfortunately, he did not necessarily know how to spell googol and ended up registering by mistake. No matter, they ran with it anyway and became the most successful Internet millionaires in history (for now).

There are MANY other examples but the main point to take from all of this is that it changes very little. As far as we know, all of these were unintentional and under no circumstances should be taken as meaning anything in any way. Penguin does not want you to sprinkle some of your crushed African-American co-workers onto a questionable tagliatelle (sardines?), they simply made a (hilarious) mistake.

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