Spellcheck Serendipity

Time was that if you typed:

“I’d like to throttle Bill Gates for his monopolistic business practices”

into Microsoft Word and then checked the phrase against its built-in thesaurus, it offer the following phrase in response:

“I’ll drink to that”.

Theories about fifth columnists within Gates’ business empire were unfounded. A few quick experiments was enough to demonstrate that any phrase beginning with “I’d like to” would generate the line “I’ll drink to that”. With any dumb string match, comparing a sequence of letters to similar sequences within a database, there is the potential for serendipity. Those suggested substitutes of similar letters may deliver unexpected but revealing meaningful commentaries on the world around us. Take the German philosopher Martin Heidegger as an example. He was one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century. Heidegger wrote cryptic texts that are almost unreadable, crammed full of familiar old words given esoteric new meanings. How appropriate then, that the spellchecker returns ‘headgear’ in response to the Heidegger’s surname. This was a man who turned people’s minds inside out and stuffed them with new mental apparatus – metaphorical head-gear if ever there was.

More modern examples of spellcheck serendipity include the name of seemingly the world’s most popular man, Barack Obama. The spellchecker thinks his name should be ‘bema’, which means a raised platform in a synagogue from which the Torah is read. Obama is not Jewish, but he does have quite a way with delivering sermons. Obama’s erstwhile and would-be future opponent, the Republican Sarah Palin, generates some rather more straightforward hits. The word ‘pain’ is offered, perhaps referring to feelings she inspires in so many. ‘Palling’ is offered, which reflects the diminishing support for her as a result of her never-ending gaffs and scandals. Another suggestion is ‘plaint’ which means protest or complaint, something which has become the raison d’être for Palin with respect to Obama’s plans for health care. The spellchecker also has an eye for current affairs on the British side of the Atlantic. Foreign Secretary David Milliband’s name prompts the response of ‘mulligan’, meaning a do-over shot in golf. Milliband looks set to lose his job as British Foreign Secretary, should Labour lose the general election as expected. However, this week we discovered he is on the list for that most ideal do-over for failed European politicians – a plumb job with the EU. In Milliband’s case he may be offered another Foreign Secretary position, but this time for the whole of Europe. What a ‘mulligan’ that would be for a man who was mediocre at playing the same role for Britain.

Casting an eye over the rest of the world, we find that destiny may have played a hand in forcing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to run in a second election after overwhelming evidence of polling fraud in the first. The spellchecker proposes ‘karma’ for Karzai. We should all hope that Iraqi Primeminister Nouri al-Maliki will live up to spellchecker’s suggestion and be the man to ‘nourish’ his troubled nation back to health and prosperity. Spellchecker is less optimistic when it comes to the Far East. It fears that Chinese vice-premier Xi Jinping, likely to become China’s leader in 2012, might be ‘jinxing’ the hopes for progressive reform in the world’s largest country.

Turning to the stars of screen and stage, spellchecker seems to regularly hit the nail on the head. Angelina Jolie is doubtless ‘jolly’ about being married to Brad Pitt, loaded with cash, surrounded by children of all hues and adored the world over. The spelling suggestion for Beyonce is ‘become’, a very appropriate choice for someone whose manners and dress are always becoming. Mick Jagger has for many years been a ‘jigger’ on the stage, given his jerky dancing moves. And Johnny Depp’s film career may deservedly be described as both ‘deep’ and ‘dippy’, especially when he collaborates with director Tim Burton.

It was with trepidation that I completed my exercise in contrived serendipity by reading the spellchecker’s runes for myself. Typing my own surname into MS Word, I discovered spellchecker identifies me as a ‘prizeman’. I may not have received any awards yet, but I will interpret the sign from spellchecker as a very good omen…

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