Who will save us from the dreaded typo, Batman?

Typos have been around us for centuries, writes Charles Purcell. But with subeditors’ desks decimated everywhere, subs may need to take their eagle eyes to the streets… Cartoon by Andrew Weldon.

With the decline of the great factories of journalism, and their attendant losses in the sub-editing department, an important question must be raised – who will save us from the dreaded typo?

I’m not talking about the misplacing of a comma or a run-of-the-mill spelling mistake – or that great scourge of restaurants everywhere, spelling “cappuccino” wrong. Nor am I talking about words intended to be replaced later such as The Financial Review’s infamous front-page “World is Fukt” headline, which is clearly a member of the “40pt headline to come here” stuff-up category.

No, I’m referring to typos that change the original words beyond all meaning … the typos that become comic howlers to be ridiculed, shared and chortled over by readers and the public alike. I’m talking about the type of error like the pasta handbook that had to be shredded because its recipes called for “freshly ground black people”. Or the howler in The Sentinel, which “mistakenly reported that [Jon] Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums.” Or even The Washington Post’s “FDR in bed with coed” instead of a “cold”.

Typos are deceptively easy to make. It takes only a slip of the keyboard from the Vietnam War being called the “Vietnam Wart”, Obama being called “Osama”, presidential aspirant Mitt Romney’s people calling America “Amerca” or the Large Hadron Collider to become the “Large Hardon Collider”.

Allegedly even Google was supposed to be called “Googol” – the term for a 1 followed by 100 zeroes – but someone typed it in wrong when applying for the domain name.

Typos have been around with us for centuries – indeed, the Barker and Lucas bible of 1631 says “thou shall commit adultery”, leaving out the “not” – but most organisations didn’t have the small army of subs to prevent such howlers from getting into print.

Coming from a background in magazines and newspapers, I’ve come across many a howler. Indeed, even contributed to them. I remember once describing someone as a “rouge warrior”. It was later fixed by an eagle-eyed colleague, but I’ve always wondered what readers would have thought had it gone to print, perhaps musing about the soldier who entered battle all powdered up and covered in lipstick. That one reminds me of last year’s classic “Armstrong used rugs” headline (OK, it was from TV, but it was funny).

Fortunately the stakes aren’t as high in journalism as they are in, say, space exploration, where a single missing hyphen in the coding program led to an $80 million NASA spacecraft exploding minutes after take-off in 1962. Or even in minting, where Chile released a 50 peso coin that spells the country “Chiie”.

Nevertheless, with subs’ desk decimated everywhere, where can subs continue their fight against typos?

Perhaps subs could find work in the private, non-media sector, preventing the publication of signs such as “shoplifters will be prostituted”, fresh crab from being called “fresh crap”, mischievous placards pointing towards the “swimming poo” or billboards spruiking “the 15 best things about our pubic schools”. Or they could join the staff of English satirical magazine Private Eye, which has conducted a long and ceaseless campaign against The Guardian over its typos, even going so far as to give it the nickname “The Grauniad”.

Maybe they could even roam the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, chalk in hand, correcting all the incorrectly-spelt examples of “cappuccino”.

I reckon that last one could probably become a full-time career.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.