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Editorial: Of Typos

Recently a trade magazine for home-theater installers arrived in our office. It announced a new loudspeaker: "The SW-X1 subwoofer can handle up to 150

Editorial: Of Typos

Jan 20, 1997 12:00 PM,
By Ted UzzleUzzle is editor of S&VC

Recently a trade magazine for home-theater installers arrived in our office. It announced a new loudspeaker: “The SW-X1 subwoofer can handle up to 150 W of power, has a 120 inch driver with a 1 mm thick polypropylene-injected cone and an enclosure constructed of one inch thick material.”

Trouble never travels alone. The very same page included the announcement of a new theater chair: “The Marquee, designed by a team of human engineers, provides maximum comfort and support to the lumbar area.”

With exquisite delicacy we call these typographical errors, or typos, as if some automatic typesetting machine had gone inexplicably awry. In fact they might be an author’s error, they might be an editing error, or they might be a mechanical error. When anyone says, “That’s a typo,” it simply means, “We all wish it hadn’t come out like that.”

It’s most unseemly for an editor to poke even the gentlest fun at typos elsewhere without explaining carefully that typos happen everywhere. Sure enough, in the October S&VC, we announced a new pan-tilt mechanism for security cameras as offering “vibration-free breaking.”

The most serious typo I’ve seen in any of our industry’s specialty publications was in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America many years ago. The title and abstract of a paper on the use of lips and tongue in speech production were deliberately altered to make an indecent double-entendre. Two editorial assistants lost their jobs and every Journal subscriber was sent a peel-and-stick label to apply to the offending page.

Typographical errors have a proud place in the history of publishing. In 1632 a British publisher printed an edition of the King James translation of the Bible in which the word “not” was omitted from the seventh commandment, thereby commanding (rather than forbidding) the pious to covet neighbors’ wives. Famous as the Sinner’s Bible or the Wicked Bible, it resulted in the publisher’s being bankrupted by fines, imprisoned and whipped at the tail of the cart. They didn’t have much sense of humor in those days.

A century later another Bible rendered verse 161 of the 119th Psalm as “printers have persecuted me without cause.”

The Swan of Avon also has suffered at the hands of typos. A new scholarly edition of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in 1991, edited by renowned experts. In Act III, Scene I of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the meditation “To be, or not to be” appeared as “To be, or to be.”

There’s a new edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for which the editors compared the published version with Joyce’s manuscript and decided many of the eccentricities and solecisms are merely the misprints of bewildered typesetters. If they’re right, decades of literary analysis and scholarly dissertations take the dive with Buck Mulligan.

Sometimes the change of a single letter can make a change of meaning. Poet Alfred Noyes wrote a lovely elegy for a soldier dead in a distant war, “All night he lies beneath the stars, And dreams no more out there,” which a printer made into: “All night he lies beneath the stairs …” changing the meaning into something from Arsenic and Old Lace.

Madame de Sévigné wrote more than 1,000 letters while at the court of Louis XIV, and this famous record gives an intimate view of the times of the Sun King. When R.B. McKerrow edited a new English translation of the letters, the proofs came back with the spelling of de Sévigné queried by the proofreader on almost every page. The editor conscientiously crossed out each question mark and wrote “stet,” the proofreader’s word for “it’s OK, leave it be.”

The final proofs came back with de Sévigné queried again, page after page after page. McKerrow began marking “stet” again and again, but soon tired of it and scribbled an angry note to the proofreader. When the first copy of the book tumbled into the hands of the eager editor, he was horrified to find his intemperate note printed in the middle of one of the letters: “For God’s sake, stop popping up between Mme. de Sévigné and me!”

We in the word business should make the best of typos. In a 1766 advertisement for Oliver Goldsmith’s novel The Vicar of Wakefield, the publisher blunted criticism with the comment, “A book may be amusing with numerous errors, or it may be very dull without a single absurdity.”

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