Accidentally, 'Autocorrect' Makes Good Texts Go Bad If you've ever typed Oprah Winfrey and your smartphone texted "orca whale," or said "Your mom and I are going to divorce" instead of "going to Disney," you've been the unfortunate victim of an autocorrect blunder. The author of a new book, Damn You, Autocorrect! shares her favorite mistexts.

Accidentally, 'Autocorrect' Makes Good Texts Go Bad

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Our computers and smartphones have an almost limitless power to embarrass us. Say you write an email or a text message, and your computer or smartphone doesn't quite send out what you wanted.

M: We invited her - along with the linguist Ben Zimmer, who runs the website Virtual Thesaurus - into our New York studios, and they spoke with Renee about how autocorrect goes awry.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

I want to start with you, Jillian. You've received hundreds of copies of autocorrected text messages a day. What are the most common word changes?

JILLIAN MADISON: First of all, I would have to say, ha-ha. You know, laughing. That turns into Shabaka, who was actually an Egyptian pharaoh.

MONTAGNE: Oh.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: So that could be a learning experience.

MADISON: Yes, it can. Another really popular one is hell, it turns into he'll, H-E'L-L, which is the bane of a lot of people's existence.

MONTAGNE: Also, pick me up can turn to oil me up?

MADISON: Oil me up. Yes. That's always interesting. And kids turn into LSD, as well. So if you, you know, you say: I'm going to run out and pick up the kids, it often turns into: I'm going to run out and pick up the LSD. I'll be home in a little while.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about some more of these text messages that you've collected in the book. But first, I want to just, Ben, ask you: What is the history of spell check when it comes to smartphones, and what's the technical thing that's going on there?

BEN ZIMMER: There are definitely predecessors, going back to the automatic spell-checking from Microsoft Word and other word-processing programs. This has really exploded into a new phenomenon since the introduction of smartphones that use these virtual keyboards. And suddenly, we have millions of people trying to tap out messages on these phones. And we also have a relatively new technology of trying to understand what the users mean.

MADISON: If you're talking about Derek Jeter, the baseball player spelled J-E-T-E-R, well, if his name isn't in the dictionary, it's both going to guess that perhaps that J should have been an H. And it'll also try to complete the word, and you'll end up with heterosexual. So completely different from what you meant to type, even if you were typing it correctly.

MONTAGNE: There's one text message that changed Disney - pretty innocent - into divorce. Why don't you read us that one?

MADISON: I believe it was a father was talking to his daughter, and he said: Your mom and I are going to divorce next month. Hannah, the girl who received the text message, she said: What? What do you mean you're going to divorce? What's going on? And the father said: Disney. I wrote Disney. We're going to Disney, not to divorce. So the poor daughter almost had a heart attack there.

MONTAGNE: I have to say, reading some of these, they make, in ways, some kind of sense and some kind of poetic sense: Grandpa bought me a corn dog from the devil.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: From the devil? Is the response. And then, well, deli. Ha-ha-ha. You know, I meant deli. Well, deli, devil - that makes sense. But we can't even talk about quite a few of those in this collection of text. Because, I mean, simply put, autocorrect has its mind in the gutter.

MADISON: Absolutely. I say autocorrect has a mind of its own, and it's often a very dirty mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: But why do you think?

ZIMMER: But, you know, I think it also says something about the sociology of these situations. You know, you're texting with your parents or coworkers or loved ones, and there's a whole sort of panoply of new, embarrassing situations that you can find yourself in, so that when one of those extremely embarrassing words slips through, it can create this fraught situation in the social relationship there.

MADISON: And it's so much more embarrassing, you know, telling your boss that you'll be aroused later, instead of maybe around later.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MADISON: When you say something like that to your boss, there's that whole new level of mortifying...

ZIMMER: Right.

MADISON: ...that sets in.

MONTAGNE: Ben, what is your advice for people who use text messaging frequently? I mean, should they just turn off the autocorrect function, if it starts to become a problem?

ZIMMER: And when wrong things do show up, try to have a good laugh about it, maybe even learn some new vocabulary. If hilarious changes to hoosegow, you can learn a new slang term for prison. If holy moly changes to holy molybdenum, you can learn the name of an element on the Periodic Table.

INSKEEP: That's linguist Ben Zimmer and Jillian Madison, who blogs at PopHangover. Her book, "Damn You, Autocorrect!" comes out today. You can find more embarrassing text messages from the Jillian's book at npr.org.

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