Cupertinos in the spotlight

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About seven years ago, in March 2006, I wrote a Language Log post about "the Cupertino effect," a term to describe spellchecker-aided "miscorrections" that might turn, say, Pakistan's Muttahida Quami Movement into the Muttonhead Quail Movement. It owes its name to European Union translators who had noticed the word cooperation getting replaced with Cupertino by a spellchecker that lacked the unhyphenated form of the word in its dictionary. Since then, I've had occasion to hold forth on the Cupertino effect in various venues (OUPblog, Der Spiegel, Radiolab, the New York Times, etc.). Now, Cupertinos are getting yet another flurry of publicity, thanks to a new book by the British tech writer Tom Chatfield called Netymology.

Chatfield's book is currently only available in the UK, but he was kind enough to send me a copy and I can heartily recommend it as a whirlwind tour of the latest in digital speak. His 100 bite-sized topics cover other Language Log-friendly terrain, like snowclones, but the Cupertino effect has earned a prominent place in publicity for the book. Chatfield has discussed the Cupertino effect in pieces for the BBC and the Guardian, as well as in this video.

And no doubt thanks to this renewed attention, Cupertino effect is featured today on Paul McFedries' Wordspy site. It's defined there as "the tendency for automatic spell-checking software to replace some words with inappropriate or incorrect alternatives," and I supplied the earliest known example (mentioned in my 2006 Language Log post), from the September 2000 issue of Language Matters.

The Wordspy entry also notes the use of Cupertino as a standalone noun (to describe an instance of the phenomenon) but doesn't provide any citations for it. As far as I can recall, Cupertino was first used in this way in a Jan. 12, 2008 Language Log post by Mark Liberman, "More Campaign Cupertinos: Mike Hackable, John Moccasin, Rot Paul, Chris Dodo…" In that post, Mark quotes an email from Cody Boisclair referring to "Cupertinos," and Mark followed up with the lower-case variant "cupertinos." Prior to that, I had been using the less snappy "Cupertino-isms."

(Michael Quinion also has a good discussion of the term on World Wide Words.)

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8 Comments »

  1. Arika Okrent said,

    April 18, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    After I wrote a little thing about the Cupertino effect on Mental Floss a while ago, I heard from a Basque reader who informed me that over there it's called "the Donostia effect" after the common problem of spell checkers replacing the Basque name for San Sebastian with the rarely used Spanish diminutive donosita. I wonder how many other cities give their names to their own versions of the Cupertino effect?

  2. Seonachan said,

    April 18, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

    Years ago I had a job which frequently involved typing up letters for the company president, whose last name was Goodman. Had the term been coined at the time, I might have been heard to exclaim, "Goddamn Cupertino Effect!"

  3. Chandra said,

    April 18, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    I just realized all those "damn you Autocorrect" memes going around are in fact cupertinos (though I still think a lot of them are fabricated).

    [(bgz) The New York Times link above is to a 2011 On Language column in which I refer to "Damn You Autocorrect!" and its ilk as "the cellular counterpart of the Cupertino effect." DYAC creator Jillian Madison also addresses fabrication charges in the column.]

  4. David Morris said,

    April 18, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

    A few months ago the OS of my mobile phone needed upgrading, which has caused and is continuing to cause all sorts of problems. One of these is that text messages autocorrect my 'mistakes'. I spell very accurately in text messages, but sometimes have to write Korean words, or word-play spellings. Recently I had to indicate a degree of hesitation in my message, and wrote 'Ummm … [rest of message]'. I then noticed that the phone had changed 'Ummm' to 'Ymmv', which is not a word which I know or would use if I did. I searched online and found that it is a text/chat abbreviation for 'your mileage may vary', originally taken from car ads, but now used to indicate 'your response to the situation/experience/product I am talking about may be different from mine', with an example of 'I loved the latest [group/singer] album but ymmv'.
    A form of autocorrect goes on in the heads of ESL students. A recent lesson included the word 'optimist' (in the context of 'personality adjectives'). I asked a student what it meant, and he said 'someone who checks your eyes'.
    Has there been any (semi-)academic discussion of "Damn You, Autocorrect?'? Some of them are highly implausible (but very funny).

    BTW today I am graduating with an MA (Ling) from the University of New England, Australia.

  5. Jeffry House said,

    April 20, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    A most worrisome Cupertino effect occurred this week, when Fox News reported that the suspect in the Boston Marathon bomber was "19 year old Zooey Descharnel" because the name " Dhikhar Tsarnev" did not exist in its database.

    Some day, someone is gonna get killed that way. Luckily, Ms. Descharnel looked very little ike the suspect's picture.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

    Jeffry, it was a local Fox station, not Fox News, and it was the closed captioning that was wrong, which is not a Cupertino effect. Related perhaps, but with the huge added factor of a computer trying to recognize speech. (I assume live closed captioning is done by computers.)

  7. Desh said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

    Ellen: Actually, live close captioning is done using steno, by people with the same training as court reporters. Live transcription is an order of magnitude harder than court reporting, though, because a computer translates the written steno into English in real time, rather than the reporter having an opportunity to go over her transcript afterwards to translate words typed incorrectly. Often, when typing unusual words (especially unusual names), unless you've taken the time beforehand to program into the machine exactly how you're going to spell the name in steno, the computer doing the live translation from steno to written English will get it wrong.

    So you were half right. It's a computer's "fault", but it's not a fault of auditory speech recognition.

  8. Daniel Barkalow said,

    April 22, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    I have to wonder if this was the reason that, near Greenough Boulevard (pronounced green-oh) in Watertown, MA, there's a Goodenough Street (pronounced good-enough).

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