Pharoahs and care bombs

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Back at the beginning of the volcano ash cloud flight chaos news story event sequence, on April 15, Bob Ladd sent me this quote from an item on the BBC News web site:

Philip Avery from the Met Office said: "It is showing up on imagery at the moment, extending down as far as the Pharoahs but it looks as though the wind will drag it a good deal further south.

Bob is a reliable witness, but unfortunately, by the time I found the article in question, the "Pharoahs" had turned into the Faroes.

When I notice a notable typo in a normally well-edited publication, I try to get a screen shot, as I did in the case of this striking New York Times headline:

Again, you'd trust me if I claimed to have read the headline without providing any further evidence, right? And anyhow, I could have concocted the image with PhotoShop. But still, the screenshot somehow makes it more intresting.  In any case, before long the headline on the same article read "Taliban Seen Behind 2 Car Bomb Attacks in Downtown Kandahar".

These are both unexpected errors, it seems to me.

It would be surprising enough for a BBC News reporter not to know what the Faroes are, but it's even more surprising to translate the name of islands between Iceland and Scotland into a common misspelling of the name of ancient Egyptian rulers, which makes no sense at all in the context, and then not to bother to look it up. What was (s)he thinking? More plausibly, I guess it might be a slip of the fingers, substituting homophones. I do this myself occasionally.

And maybe "Care Bombs" for "Car Bombs" happened when someone's fingers finished a word on automatic pilot, while their brain was off thinking about the next word or the one after that. This happens to me all the time. But in this headline, you'd think that it would be so obvious that you'd notice it right away.

There are two interesting questions here, one psychological and the other organizational.

The psychological question is how to model slips of the fingers. Compared to slips of the tongue, there's relatively little published research on this, especially on the higher-level errors that just aren't a matter of screwing up the placement or order of keypresses.

The organizational question is how the normal editing process allows this sort of thing to get into print, or at least to get posted on a web site. Is it because "normal editing" sometimes doesn't take place, due to time constraints? Or because the people in charge get distracted? John McIntyre writes ("The $18,000 typo", 4/19/2010):

It is not at all uncommon from the wrong synapse to fire in a writer’s brain, particularly when concentration is momentarily relaxed, substituting the wrong word for the correct word. […]

Then, of course, comes the embarrassment of the proofreader, who let this mistake slip through his or her hands. Once again, if attention flags even momentarily, the brain is given to pass quickly over words it recognizes. The wrong word correctly spelled is one of the great hazards that editors and proofreaders encounter.

You may snicker, but you too could have committed this error, or overlooked it. So could I. So could anyone.



  1. jfruh said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    As a former copy editor, I can tell you that copy editing desks are being gutted across news publications. No matter what higher-ups say about their dedication to quality, they tend to see copy editors as a cost sink: they produce nothing concrete, and in fact they tend to slow down the publishing cycle, both because they need time for their own work and because they sometimes kick articles back to other editors or the original author for queries or revisions.

    When I was working as a Web copy editor (back at the turn of the century), everything that went on our website was copy edited before it was published online. Now I imagine that this process often happens only after the article goes up. The argument for this — and it is honestly one that I have a certain amount of sympathy for — is that it's so easy to fix a story that's already published that there's no point in missing potential pageviews just for a few typos, so long as said typos are fixed in a relatively timely fashion.

  2. George said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 7:37 am

    It is not at all uncommon FOR the wrong synapse to fire in a writer’s brain, surely? Is this a case of the teacher saying "I was only testing you"?

  3. John McIntyre said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    Not deliberate, but an inadvertent demonstration of the validity of the last three sentences quoted.

  4. Mongoose said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    I found this remarkable error in the Times of India a few days ago, which I suspect was caused by a spellchecker. It has not been corrected. The article is about a Mr Prahalad, but in two instances early in the article his name has been rendered as "Mr Parallax".

  5. Nick said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    As far as slips of the fingers go, I often find myself typing "think" when I'm clearly thinking "know", and "know" when I'm clearly thinking "think". It's pretty weird, because I'll have a sentence clearly in my head but as I watch the monitor something else comes out. I've always been curious about that.

  6. Wulfheah said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    @Mongoose Coimbatore Krishnarao Prahalad ⇒ Combater Krishna Parallax. I smell spellcheck. Oddly, they turned it off after the first sentence.

  7. J.H. said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    I was once talking to a friend through instant messenger about his drama activities, yet I typed 'German' instead. This was probably due to the fact that 'drama' and 'German' sound vaguely similar in my head, and also that I was deliberating whether to do my German homework at the same time.

  8. [links] Link salad dreams of the Serengeti | said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    […] Pharoahs and care bombs — Language Log on the perils of copy editing. They're talking in a journalistic context in this piece, but the same issues definitely apply to us fictioneers. […]

  9. Damien Hall said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    My wife, who's both a proofreader and a New York Times junkie, says that the online NYT is famous for its bad or absent proofreading. But, as is discussed both in this post and by jfruh above, this can be forgiven, I suppose! We could all have done it.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 8:52 am

    I was a slow but accurate typist when I used a typewriter. With word processing I got a bit faster, because corrections are easier — but I found that I had a tendency to substitute homophones ("there" for "their," etc.). A good deal of my writing is intended for oral delivery, which encourages "sounding out" as I write — perhaps the situation at the BBC as well.

  11. Irina said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:14 am

    @Wulfheah: the spellchecker may have turned itself off; mine does after so many things it takes issue with.

    Here's my account of a typo I found at the BBC: "The social morays at the time looked down on unmarried mothers." I think that might be due to dictating software rather than the spellchecker, though.

  12. bkd69 said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:15 am

    Newspapers I forgive. I mean, they're pushing so many words out on a daily basis, they're bound to let a few slip by. The unforgivable ones are the ones done by the graphics creators one the television news.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    Long ago, I worked as a copyeditor for the New Bedford Standard-Times, which was very, very meticulous about editorial proofreading of pages, especially Page 1. Before the paper went to press, Page 1 was proofread independently by everyone on the copy desk (4 or 5 people), the city editor, the news editor, the managing editor, the executive editor, and the publisher himself. On one occasion, we all caught and correct a few minor errors. When the paper went to press, the top headline referred to a "Cypress Crisis."

  14. Peter Harvey said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:45 am

    "It would be surprising enough for a BBC News reporter not to know what the Faroes are."

    You are easily surprised. I have found 'accidently', 'monastry', 'Detective Sargeant Cate Jackson' and 'three days of national morning' (!) on the BBC.

    As for the unfortunate 'care bombs', the e is next to the r on a keyboard and both keys might have been pressed together.

    I agree that proofreading is a thankless task, but there is no reason why spell-checkers can't be used.

  15. Theophylact said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    The New York Times seems to have fired its copy editors. Today I saw both "a vest with as many as 15 pounds of explosives" and "came under fire for speaking admirably of ". You can argue about the first if you like, but the Times style book would surely find fault with it. The second is simply erroneous.

  16. Amanda said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 10:01 am

    @George I wondered the same thing about "But still, the screenshot somehow makes it more INTRESTING."

  17. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    Then, of course, it could have been a case of mistaken metonymy, albeit somewhat poetic for a newspaper. Perhaps the writer momentarily believed the cloud stretched as far as the land of the Pharaohs, but it should have been jarring enough to cause a double take. Either double-check the fact of the extent of the spread, or verify the name of the place the cloud has reached.

  18. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    Given the unconventional spelling of "Pharoahs," I have to wonder if the BBC News reporter was listening to Pharoah Sanders at the time that s/he wrote the original version of the article.

  19. Mark P said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Automatic typing. I do that all the time. I was recently looking for an overdue email reply from a man named George. When I looked back at the email I had sent him, I found that I had called him Georgia. So my fingers were apparently thinking about home. In fact, I had to correct the name George both in the first occurrence in this comment and in the one in this sentence.

  20. Army1987 said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    @Peter Harvey: why would a spellchecker flag "care"? (And why does *my* spellchecker flag "spellchecker"? It doesn't flag much weirder stuff such as "paradoxicalness" or "unflappable"…)

  21. MJP said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    @Mark P: It's not just typing; in school I routinely hand-wrote my neighbour's name in the front of my books.
    I had an intense episode of this when falling asleep over my laptop writing notes for actors after a performance. When dawn came I woke up and read what I'd written. The spelling was impeccable (at the morphemic level, at least) but the words were just… wrong. "The world is going to hell in a handcar"; "pass her the maths primper"; it's not about groats" (for grouse); "I will pot this leaf" (for plot). Sometimes I wonder about the last one.

  22. Neil said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 11:40 am

    Apparently the care bombs were not followed by random acts of kindness.

  23. MHN said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    I'm a proofreader, and I've noticed a couple common ways errors slip through even when editors are used and procedures are in place for proofreading.
    1) Errors that are near other, more obvious, errors are often missed. If you're creating an editing test and you want to stump people, put some kind of punctuation error at the end of a word that has a glaring typo in it. Many proofreaders' eyes will pounce on that typo and move on to the next word, skipping any errors that fall between.

    2) People often are so focused on proofreading the body copy, they completely overlook headlines. Truly.

    3) Sections of copy that have been rewritten or "corrected" often do not get much scrutiny (if any), especially if last-minute corrections are involved. Headlines are a ripe target for this kind of error because they are frequently written at the end or revised at the last minute.

    I find I have to make a deliberate mental effort to check these kinds of things; many kinds of errors jump out at me, and that is its own pitfall because it can lull me into thinking I'm catching everything.

  24. Jongseong Park said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    Is the spelling 'Pharoahs' instead of the usual 'Pharaohs' deliberate?

  25. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    "Compared to slips of the tongue, there's relatively little published research on this"

    There's quite a lot of research on typographical/transcription errors in general though, from literary studies. Some of it is bound to touch on the psychology of it. Obviously there's a difference between keyboard errors and printing press/manuscript errors, but presumably there's overlap for some categories of error.

  26. Peter Harvey said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    @Army1987 Obviously it wouldn't catch 'care' but if the BBC used spellcheckers (and it's blatantly obvious that they don't) they wouldn't have written the others that I mentioned — or Pharoahs.

    Spellcheckers, spell-checkers, spell checkers? If anyone starts on that one, I'm out!

  27. Boris said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    I actually had a fifth grade teacher who "corrected" one of my papers such that every instance of "Pharaoh" was replaced by "Pharoah". I didn't argue at the time because it was less than a year since I came from Russia and I was still learning English. Why do you suppose that would happen? Is there really a large population who thinks it should be spelled that way?

    [(myl) FWIW, Google hits: "pharaoh" 6.32 million, "pharoah" 1.24 million.]

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    @MHN: When I was a science writer, I had the impression that big print didn't make mistakes easier to spot, for me or any of my co-workers. I used to say that it made mistakes harder spot, but I don't have any evidence for that.

    @Peter Harvey: A prescriptive answer is "spelling checker". You don't check spell, after all. I write "spellchecker" (or "spearchucker"), though.

  29. MHN said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    On a somewhat related (and snarkier) note, today's Cake Wrecks features misspellings of the word Birthday, ranged in order from the unsurprising errors to the unexpected.

    @ Jerry Friedman: That's another good point. Capitalization style can also be a factor.

  30. Jonathan Cohen said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    I find that in every email, blog posting, or blog comment of mine pointing out someone else's solecisms or parapraxes, I run a substantial risk of making at least one error myself.

    Proofreading takes more than one person. In the 1970s, my wife worked at a small alternative newspaper in Portland, Oregon, and, as small as it was, it had a proofreading staff of four people, all checking each other's work. Now, most places have one proofreader, if they're lucky. Is it any wonder mistakes are getting through?

    Given the apparent inability of publications to make a business case for accuracy, we may well begin to see a sort of "periodical postmodernism," in which the relation between the text of an article and the phenomena to which that text refers becomes increasingly tenuous.

  31. Bobbie said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    Most of the spoken narration on news programs is automatically transcribed (without human assistance as far as I can tell.) Hence, if the Faroes citation was dictated, the automatic transcription could have resulted in Pharoahs.
    My favorite TV caption was the discussion on Public Television about Moslems and "the Profit Mohammed." [captioned as such on my TV]

  32. Stephen Jones said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    I agree that proofreading is a thankless task, but there is no reason why spell-checkers can't be used.

    Except they'll let the mistakes through.

  33. Ben said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

    @Mark P: "I was recently looking for an overdue email reply from a man named George. When I looked back at the email I had sent him, I found that I had called him Georgia."

    Similar thing happened to me, except that the correspondent I was writing to was named "Chris", and I called him "Christ". I did this every email over a correspondence of eight emails, and never noticed it myself. It was on the 8th email, which happened to be CC'ed to a co-worker, that the co-worker pointed out to me "hey, you called him Christ". Sure enough, I had (and had done so every single email prior to that too). I wonder if Chris also never noticed the mis-spelling or if he just chose to ignore it. As I was typing the 9th correspondence, I *still* typed "Christ" even though I was specifically aware of my typing, and had to correct it.

    And this is coming from someone who is not Christian or religious in any way, and I rarely type or say either "Chris" or "Christ" — if anything the former is much more common for me. So I have no idea where this particular error is coming from.

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    @Jonathan Cohen: This Wikipedia article lists some names for the law that corrections contain mistakes. Apparently it applies when you're just talking about proofreading, since I see my post above is missing a word.

  35. Faldone said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

    Jonathan Cohen: I find that in every email, blog posting, or blog comment of mine pointing out someone else's solecisms or parapraxes, I run a substantial risk of making at least one error myself.

    It's called Muphry's Law

  36. Barbara Partee said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    @Ben — I have the very same Chris/Christ problem, equally without any relevant religious background. I think I've always caught it and corrected it; I've always been surprised/amused by the insistence of my fingers on adding that extra t. If it has ever gotten through uncorrected, Chris hasn't let on. (I'd be curious to hear from Chris and other Chrisses whether this happens to them frequently. (I hope none of them have that problem themselves!) Another favorite of my fingers is to type an -ion word like 'correction' as 'correctiong', as if some part of me wanted to write 'correcting' instead. I think it only happens if it's verb + -ion and the verb ended in t, but I'm not positive. These are a puzzling category, seems to me, though I don't know how to define the category.

  37. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    It's not just newspaper headlines. It can also be the title pages and front covers of books. I remember one embarrassing example: "New New Zealand" (I forget what came before or after). A colleague's mistake, I hasten to add, not mine.

  38. Dan T. said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

    Futurama has the city and state of "New New York".

  39. Karen said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    The movie "The Attack of the Eye Creatures" has its title in the opening credits rendered as

    The Attack Of The
    The Eye Creatures

    As for "Pharoahs": there aren't many other words (can't actually think of any off the top of my head) where ao represents the long o /oʊ/. I'm surprised the incidence of the misspelling was so low.

  40. Back in the Olden Days said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:41 pm

    Back in the olden days (1968 to the early 1980s) I picked up work as a proofreader (copy reader, copy holder) at a full-service publishing house. For financial services and government contracts and other perfection-requiring clients, proofs went through "paired reading" — one person (the copy reader) read the original manuscript aloud, including pronouncing punctuation marks (period, bang, comma) and spelling some words letter-by-letter, while the "copy holder" followed along, marking up the proof.

    My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall one financial-services document going through four iterations of this process until it was deemed a perfect copy of the original manuscript.

    The other thing I remember: the proofreading crew was only allowed about 15 minutes on one station (copy reading or copy holding) before changing. I also remember that the proof-reading team would get up and and walk about for five or ten minutes. Some of the proof-readers were also qualified typesetters or paste-up artists, so there was a fair amount of variation.

    I was the most junior as I was only a part-time person, but over time I learned a bit of all the other skills — typesetting, pasteup, and so on.

  41. Back in the Olden Days said,

    April 20, 2010 @ 9:45 pm

    I hit send too soon.

    Given the amount of relatively skilled labor that used to go into even periodical publishing, it is no wonder that there are more frank errors of all types appearing not only in electronic publications but print publications as well.

    That said, I am much more annoyed by spelling and/or typographical errors in publications I pay for (books, magazines and newspapers) than in publications produced for no cost (such as this and other blogs).

  42. Adouma said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 2:48 am

    Perhaps this is just me, but I read "extending down as far as the Pharoahs/Pharaohs" as meaning that the ash cloud had spread as far as Egypt. And "care bombs" sound like letter bombs that have ribbons on them, like a care package.

    Yeah, that's probably just me.

  43. Will said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 3:59 am

    @Adouma, actually that was exactly the reading I got at first.

    I thought he was using hyperbolic language describing the ash as going so far south it was reaching the land of the Pharaohs, which–as you point out–is Egypt. Obviously the ash wasn't really going that far south, but I thought it was just a poetic exaggeration. It wasn't until I read Mark's follow-up statement that the Faroe Islands even occurred to me (this is probably at least in part because I hear and read Pharaoh a lot more frequently than Faroe, though both are somewhat rare).

    I also completely didn't notice that Pharaohs was misspelled, until it was pointed out later.

  44. Will said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    Care bombs on the other hand makes me think of someone showering someone else with loving words — that would be the act of dropping a care bomb. It's sort of reminiscent of an F-bomb, except the opposite.

  45. Simon Cauchi said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 4:40 am

    @Karen: Having wasted some time with the dictionary, let me share my haul:

    aorist, aorta, baobab, caoutchouc, gaol, gaoler, kaolin, Maori, Pharaoh, Tao, Taoiseach, taonga, Taormina, yaourt (= yogurt à la française).

    Pharaoh seems to be unique in having ao pronounced as long o /oʊ/.

    However, I may quite possibly have missed some others (where the ao syllable isn't the first).

  46. Adrian Mander said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 7:58 am

    I noticed that "langauge" slipped into the title of a paper in the proceedings of a certain recent international linguistics conference. I winced at this one because I used to have the sequence for typing "langauge" in my muscle memory and had to work hard to get rid of it.

  47. Colin John said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    I think Bobbie may have got it right – the automatic phonetic transcription service on the BBC News 24 channel produces this sort of error all the time. If that was then captured to provide a caption, you're there.

  48. peter said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    And talking of volcano news, here's a headline in tomorrow's Sydney Morning Herald:

    'Desperate to get home': Melbourne trio's $4000 ash dash a rash cash splash

  49. Thierry Fontenelle said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

    It is interesting to note that the contextual speller available in Microsoft Office 2007 flags "Care" in "Two Care Bombs Explode in Kandahar, Killing 2 and Wounding 23." (and it correctly suggests "Car" when right-clicking on the blue-squiggled word).

  50. Ken Grabach said,

    April 21, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    What I find puzzling is the tendency to blame spell-checkers, and automatic caption transcribers. I don't know about you, but I can let my spell-checker know that I want to retain a spelling that I know to be correct. Mine is constantly getting tripped up on surnames and foreign language words. I can ignore them, or add them to the dictionary. And can't the same thing happen in the set-up for captioning systems? The BBC surely has to refer from time to time to the Faroes. And possibly from time to time to the Pharaohs. But where did Pharoahs (I have a hard time typing it the wrong way) come from?

  51. Peter Harvey said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 3:26 am

    @Peter But ash cash is the fee doctors get for signing cremation certificates.

  52. nbm said,

    April 22, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Ginger Yellow, do you have any citations suitable for general readers on the "research on typographical/transcription errors in general"?

  53. Stephen said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    I used to live in Coventry, in the English West Midlands. The city was almost destroyed by fire-bombs during WW2, so the word "Phoenix" often appears in local business names. Given its frequency, I was surprised how often it was misspelled "Pheonix".

  54. JMT said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 12:15 pm

    I nearly always type "loub" when I want "pound"

  55. Chris said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    @Barbara Partee: Nope, doesn't happen to me when typing my own name. A complicating factor is that I type "Chris" a lot, and my full name "Christine" only occasionally, since only my bank and the government call me that.

    I'm sure some of it's ingrained habit, whether muscle or mental. After working for a nonprofit organization for many years, I had trouble typing "commitment" (and in fact still do) because it always wanted to be "committee." I'm told this is one reason why typing in an unfamiliar language is often tremendously slower, at least to begin with — because your fingers go for the common patterns in the language you know, which may not occur so often in the other language.

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