The ‘Clbuttic Mistake’ and Others Leave Proofreaders with Work to Do

September 08, 2008 08:52 AM
by Shannon Firth
Mistakes by automated spell-checkers and obscenity filters abound, showing that sometimes there’s no substitute for human judgment.

Automated Errors Confound Editors

Automated spell-checkers and obscenity filters, or rather our stubborn reliance on such technology, are causing editors, lawyers and diplomats no end of problems. According to Dr. William Carroll, author of the book “The Untied Stats on American and Other Computer Assisted Errors,” “If a hundred chimpanzees were seated at computer keyboards, they would have difficulty matching the ridiculous stuff turned out by human hands and minds with the assistance of their reliable “smart machines.’”

There are currently two known types of “computer assisted errors,” or CAEs, as Carroll calls them: the “clbuttic mistake,” which occurs when an obscenity filter replaces a word it deems vulgar, and the “cupertino effect,” which occurs when a spell-checker automatically replaces the right word with an incorrect choice. The latter term was coined by European Union members who noticed the word “cooperation” was replaced in countless reports by the word “Cupertino,” a city in northern California.

The clbuttic mistake is named for one of the first instances in which a poorly programmed obscenity filter caused more trouble than it solved—in this case, changing the letters “ass” in the word “classic” to the supposedly less-offensive “butt.” As the Daily Telegraph reports, cheap online obscenity filters are responsible for the description of Abraham Lincoln as “a victim of buttbuttination”; they are also to blame for the American Family Association’s unfortunate error claiming that “Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has.” The runner’s name is Tyson Gay. The Telegraph notes the breadth of the problem: “Google searches turn up 3,810 results for ‘clbuttic’, 5,120 for ‘consbreastution’, and 1,450 for ‘Buttociated Press’, a corruption of the U.S. news agency the Associated Press.”

Switching gears to spell-checkers, the Seattle Times reports that, until spring of 2007, anyone typing in “Obama” would receive a prompt from Microsoft Word’s spell-checker suggesting “Osama.” The New Scientist highlighted embarrassing CAEs in business correspondence such as “at your desecration” or “Sorry for the incontinence.” Ben Zimmer, an editor for Oxford University Press, wrote on the OUP blog about Reuters’ infamous error in which the news organization replaced Pakistan’s Muttahida Quami Movement with the term “Muttonhead Quail Movement.” Zimmer also noted another laughable error: attorney Arthur Dudley’s law brief included the words “sea sponges” instead of “sua sponte,” Latin for “on its own motion,” five times. Unfortunately, Dudley had turned the brief over to the court unaware of his error.

Mike Calcagno of the Microsoft Language group explained to the Seattle Times how some “squiggle” decisions are made: “The team asked itself, should ‘calender’ be flagged, or squiggled … Yes, because letting it go through as correct ‘more often masks the really common spelling error that people make for calendar.’”

Related Topics: Poems and other anecdotes about computer-assisted errors

Reference: Misspelled words, computer-assisted errors


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