05/07/2013 08:21 BST | Updated 06/12/2017 22:08 GMT

Autocorrect Fails And The History Of Literature


A popular entertainment on the Internet is the 'autocorrect fail' compilation, capitalizing on the tendency of smart phones to automatically 'correct' otherwise innocuous text messages into absurd and often obscene nonsense. A graduate is directed to look for his college diploma in a box in his father's anus, chicken vaginas are craved instead of fajitas, and, in a text exchange between fans of a popular musical, the Phantom of the Opera 'is there... inside your mom.'

As modern as this seems, the source of humour is a very old one. Shakespeare's hapless watchman, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, routinely employs the same 'autocorrect' logic in his orders, seeking the most 'desertless' man to assist him as constable, comprehending auspicious persons (rather than apprehending suspicious ones), and condemning the play's villains to eternal redemption.

The motif takes on a more specific class significance in the eighteenth century. Henry Fielding's novel Joseph Andrews shows Mrs Slipslop, an aristocrat's waiting woman, attempting and failing to distinguish herself from her fellow servants and mimic her betters with similar absurd substitutions.

Another of the century's interfering older woman, Mrs Malaprop in R.B. Sheridan's play The Rivals, gives her name to this kind of linguistic mess up: her 'malapropisms' include reference to the smallness of her 'affluence' over her niece in the issue of getting her to 'illiterate' an inappropriate lover from her memory, in favour of another, described as 'the very pineapple of politeness.'

The two people in the modern period to have given their names to the phenomenon of the wrong word are Sigmund Freud and George W. Bush. The 'Freudian slip' of the former occurs when the existence of similar sounding words presents a convenient escape route for the fact that we are anxious or undecided about something as we are talking. More insidiously, as the philosopher Alenka Zupančič has pointed out, the ever-misunderestimated President Bush was able to refashion his blundering 'Bushisms' - the Taliban having 'no disregard for human life', knowing 'how hard it is to put food on your family' - into the media-friendly pose of being a fallible 'ordinary guy.'

'Comparisons,' as Dogberry says, are 'odorous,' but there is an important difference to be drawn between what we can call the age of the classical malapropism (from Shakespeare to Bush), and the radical development found in the autocorrect fail.

The classical malapropism shows a rebellious tendency in language to struggle free and undermine us at precisely the moment we are asserting our authority. Whether we are meddling in our nieces' love lives or leading the war on terror, the fundamental hostility in language to any kind of secure total position is poised to hilariously undercut our self-asserting endeavours. From Shakespeare to Bush, the malapropism stands ready to scandalously reveal some hidden truth from behind our façade, whether of stupidity, social inferiority, or sexual anxiety.

What distinguishes the autocorrect fail is that, now, this obviously can't be the case. We know the mistake is only the quirky result of a technology designed to intervene as often as possible for our convenience, which has happened to emerge at a time when, in text messages at least, spelling is probably more idiosyncratic and variable than it has been since the advent of print. Nevertheless, the reason the autocorrect fail is so funny is that, while we know that no personal shortcoming or repressed desire has really been exposed in these slips, it still feels like it has. It is as if the 'message' of our secret perverse sexuality, stupidity or whatever, arrives at its destination all the same. The desperate attempts at recovery in the text exchanges posted online - 'no mom I didn't mean...' - attest enough to that.

The point that the autocorrect fail makes clear is that it was actually never just an individual failing that was being exposed in the classical malapropism at all. If, as the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure famously has it, language is always a patched-together compromise in which no word is ever positively quite right, then a certain perverse mal-appropriateness inheres in all language from the start. There was never a space 'behind' language where improper material could temporarily hide itself. While from Shakespeare to Freud and beyond, the malapropism has always been attributed to special cases of hidden individual weakness, the autocorrect fail shows us that language is only ever founded on its own tendency to turn pinnacles into pineapples, dogs into dongs.

Everyday Analysis is an anonymous collective edited by Alfie Bown and Daniel Bristow. Please click the link and support the blog.