Blog Excerpts

The "Cupertino Effect" and Other Tech Neologisms

Promoting a new book entitled Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World, British author Tom Chatfield has been making the rounds talking about peculiar tech coinages, from "the Cupertino effect" to "approximeetings."

Here's an excerpt from a piece that Chatfield wrote for the BBC News Magazine:

One of my own favourite neologisms is the Cupertino effect - which describes what happens when a computer automatically "corrects" your spelling into something wrong or incomprehensible.

The name originates from an early spellchecking program's habit of automatically "correcting" the word "cooperation" (when spelt without a hyphen) into "Cupertino", the name of the California city in which Apple has its headquarters.

One of my favourite Cupertinos was my first computer's habit of changing the name "Freud" into "fraud" - or, more recently, of one phone's fondness for converting "soonish" into "Zionism".

As Cupertinos suggest, onscreen language is both a collaboration and a kind of combat between user and medium. And if self-expression can sometimes be reduced to little more than clicking on "like", there's every bit as much pressure exerted in the opposite direction.

If you can do it, someone, somewhere has probably already coined you a term - from approximeetings with friends (arranging a rough time or place to meet, then sorting out details on the fly via mobile phone) to indulging in political slacktivism (ineffective activism carried out by clicking online petitions).

Cupertinos also made Chatfield's list of top 10 Internet neologisms published in The Guardian. And here he is talking about the term in a promotional video for the book:

Our own Ben Zimmer was actually the first to bring "the Cupertino effect" to light, writing about it on Language Log back in 2006. In a 2011 installment of Word Routes following up on a New York Times "On Language" column about autocorrect follies, he had this to say:

I've had a long-standing interest in the linguistic trouble that "helpful" computer algorithms can get us into. Automated spellchecking in word-processing programs can often create howlers, though perhaps with less frequency than smartphone autocorrect. The so-called "Cupertino effect" has been an unfortunate element of spellchecking ever since Microsoft Office 97 couldn't recognize unhyphenated cooperation and instead replaced it with Cupertino, the name of a California town. I first learned about the Cupertino effect in 2006 from a former writer for the European Union. You can still manage to find documents online from the EU and other international organizations that have the word Cupertino where cooperation is intended, such as this NATO document that has the line, "The Cupertino with our Italian comrades proved to be very fruitful." (I spoke about the Cupertino effect and other editorial miscorrections on the National Public Radio show Radiolab last year, in an episode entitled, "Oops.")

With the advent of smartphones with virtual keyboards, particularly Apple's iPhone and the Android phones from Google, the Cupertino effect is running amok on an unprecedented scale. And there are many obstacles faced by designers of smartphone autocorrect features that earlier spellchecker designers didn't have to deal with. For instance, as I mention in the column, there's the problem of words with letters repeated for emphasis, a common feature of text-ese. Thanks to autocorrect's tendency to look for fat-finger errors, yeahhhh can get changed to uranium because y is close to u on the virtual keyboard, e is near r, and h is in the vicinity of i, u, and m. You can test this out yourself: try typing wheeeeeee with seven e's into your phone and you might get autocorrected to shredders; add one more e and whereafter may instead be the suggested substitution.

Have you had your own experience with spellchecker and autocorrect goofs? Let us know in the comments below!


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Comments from our users:

Friday April 19th 2013, 3:55 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
Whenever I sign off a text to my daughter & start keying xox(oxox...), my dumb "smart"phone tells me I mean "cox" ~ when will it learn that I *don't*?
Friday April 19th 2013, 5:24 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
My phone doesn't correct me. It offers guesses across the top of the keyboard (including predictions: if I type "keyboard" it offers "and shortcuts to with for") but it won't cgorrect anythibg (it knew I meant "correct anything" there but didn't automatically change them).
Friday April 19th 2013, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Ps its predictions are based on me: if I type "whi" Whidbey will be offered.
Friday April 19th 2013, 6:31 PM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
Can anyone change autocorrect from an "opt out" feature into an "opt in?" I don't touch type on my iPad and I often miss the autocorrect insertion.. I guess it wouldn't be autocorrect then, would it? Many correct? Oops, that was autocorrect preempting my attempt to create the word "manucorrect." Perhaps it just knows better.
Sunday April 21st 2013, 10:32 AM
Comment by: alex L. (Toronto Canada)
When I go play the challenge on my family's iPad, when I'm on a "spelling" question, the iPad always autocorrects me and it makes me spell the wrong word!!!!!
Monday April 22nd 2013, 7:54 PM
Comment by: EILEEN T.
Cupertino can be rude. I have a dear friend named Jacques. When I write to him, and if I engage in a spell-check, it suggests that instead of Dear Jacques I really mean Dear Jackass.
Eileen Tye, Boston, MA

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