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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Words Into Typo

In my last post — more than a month ago (sorry, I’ve been busy) — I promised to enter the publishing confessional and tell you about some of the exasperating mistakes that squeaked by my copyeditors, proofreaders, and my own squiffy eyeballs and became enshrined in my books. If you can groan and bear it, read on.

The most exciting moment for an author is when that box of books arrives fresh from the printer and you finally get to fondle a finished copy of the precious creature that you slaved and sweated over for months — or years. Well, the first time I got to do that, way back in 1988, I didn’t get more than two paragraphs into the introduction when I choked on the words “or course” instead of “of course.”

That has to be the most agonizing moment for an author: when you suddenly see, with an uncanny clarity you had no idea you possessed, the first of what may well be a host of typos that you have at least ten times overlooked. The agony is even more acute when, after several printings and thousands of copies sold, some reader who is “just trying to be helpful” points out yet another glaring and humiliating blunder.

For example, I learned not to write the reason . . . is because the way most professional writers do: the hard way. In my first book, There Is No Zoo in Zoology, and Other Beastly Mispronunciations, I wrote this infelicitous sentence: “The reason data is pronounced DAY-tuh is because it was taken into English from Latin and follows the rules for the so-called English pronunciation of Latin.” That reason . . . is because somehow got by everybody — and umpteen times by me, of course (not or course!) — and the book went through four printings with that hideous lapsus calami before I was informed, in no uncertain terms by various alert readers, that I was guilty of one of the Great Redundancies of Our Time. Chastened and edified, I emended the offending sentence for subsequent printings so that it read, “Data is pronounced DAY-tuh because . . .” (For more on this redundancy, see The Accidents of Style, pages 218-20.)

And no book — at least no book of mine — is immune to egregious erroneousness. In Test of Time I wrote that a party went deep into night instead of deep into the night, and in quoting a passage from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I mistyped the phrase that was the woods on t’other side as that was the woods on the t’other side — an error that slipped by me and everyone else because the typeset line broke after the misinterpolated the. In Verbal Advantage, misspellings that got by me and into the first printing include imposter for impostor, dessicate for desiccate, and Walraff for the last name of my friend and fellow language maven, Barbara Wallraff.

And it only gets worse. In the entry for the word diminution in my Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, I wrote, “Beware the beastly and regrettably common flip-flop mispronunciation DIM-yoo-NISH-in, which makes the word sound as if it were spelled dimunition.” Sure enough, a sharp-eyed reader found, buried elsewhere in the book, a cross-reference to the entry for dimunition, which he generously called “an ironic error.” Just flat-out stupid, if you ask me.

Some of my mistakes have been more subtle and have taken some serious sleuthing to expose. For example, in There’s a Word for It I related an anecdote to illustrate the word sockdolager, the decisive blow or sizzling retort that crushes one’s opponent and settles the dispute. I had picked up this anecdote from my father, who claimed it was a public exchange between the 19th-century English political antagonists William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. Without bothering to vet the story, I transcribed it as my father had always told it, with Gladstone telling Disraeli that he “will either die upon the gallows or of some loathsome disease,” and Disraeli shooting back, “That depends on whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.”

A clever exchange, don’t you agree? Except that it occurred — as I was eventually informed by a reader who cited chapter and verse (and included photocopies to prove it) — between two 18th-century English antagonists, John Wilkes, a rabble-rousing and infamously dissolute politician, and John Montagu, the fourth earl of Sandwich (who gave us our modern sandwich when, while gambling late one night, he called for a snack of roast beef between pieces of toasted bread). Correctly transcribed, the exchange goes like this: “I am convinced, Mr. Wilkes,” said the earl, “that you will die either of a pox or on the gallows.” To which Wilkes replied, “That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.”

So is there a moral in all this suffering over the miswritten word? I think so, and it is this: Mistakes may be inevitable, but they are not unavoidable. We should always take the trouble to get things right because it’s so goddamn troublesome to get them wrong.
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