Cupertino Effect – When Spellcheckers Strike Back

by Doug Quixote on October 29, 2010

One tip of advice if you want to be a successful writer: don’t rely on your spellchecker. It might be one of the greatest tools ever, but type too carelessly and the spellchecker will turn on you faster than the ending of a Pynchon novel.

The more technical name of “when spellcheckers attack” is called the Cupertino effect. During the emergence of the first word processors, it was common for users to set the “Change All” function in their autocorrecting options. This allowed the word processor to replace a misspelled word or a word not found in the dictionary with its first suggested change. You can see why this process wasn’t fool proof.

Back then, we’re talking word processors only recognized the hyphenated version of the word “co-operation.” Since “cooperation” wasn’t found in the computer dictionary, the spellchecker autocorrected this word to Cupertino (Apple Inc. is based in Cupertino, CA, and I hear they have some pull in the computer business).

This led to a long list of official United Nations documents with confusing phrases like, “… as well as valuable experience in international Cupertino” and “… presentation on African-German Cupertino.”

WNYC’s RadioLab podcast episode Oops talks about other infamous Cupertino moments, specifically when newspapers use the autocorrecting spellchecker to filter non-politically correct phrases. A great example was when the conservative news network called the American Family Association picked up an AP news sports story and titled it “Homosexual Eases into 100 m Final at Olympic Trials.” If you’re still confused, the article goes onto say, “Tyson Homosexual easily won his qualifier for the 100 meter final” and “Homosexual misjudged the finish in his opening heat.”

Turns out the entire article had the word homosexual in place of the word “gay.” Bummer for Tyson Gay.

Nowadays, the Cupertino effect references when a writer fails to check if a spellcheckers suggested word is appropriate. We see it all the time, from the New York Times’ change of Huston Texans linebacker DeMeco Ryans to “Demerol” and the Denver Post’s use of “Voltmeter” instead of Voltemort.

Even I pulled off a Cupertino classic when I was trying to write “gentle” in a blog post and it came out, “A rich lather of foam will give you a soft, genital shave.” Trust me. You don’t want to make that mistake. When in doubt, use the friendly word dinosaur (a.k.a. the thesaurus), or better yet, have someone else read your work. They might have a good laugh when you drop “pubic” instead of “public,” but it’s a hell of a lot better than looking like a fool.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Joseph McCullough December 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Hahahah, this article had me rolling. Being a copywriter sounds like stressful work! Which is why I just watch you guys do it.

Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot December 7, 2010 at 3:01 pm

At least you weren’t the one suffering from genital shaving.

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