a short history of the typo – and gee, I hope I spelled that right

My first writing job was as a copywriter for a small advertising agency. Soon after I joined, the graphic artist told me a story about when he worked at a small publishing company who were producing a very expensive, limited edition, full colour coffee-table book about Egypt.



When it was finished everyone in the office went through the galleys line by line to ensurethere were no mistakes. Then, when the book was published, they all looked proudly at the cover.

There was a picture of the pyramids. Above it, in bold type, it said:



But this kind of mistake doesn’t happen just at small companies. In 2010, Penguin in Australia published a cookbook and ended up with egg on their faces – they didn’t even separate the yolks – after ‘The Pasta Bible’ appeared in bookshops all over Australia with a recipe for spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto that required “salt and freshly ground black people.”


photograph: stu_spivack

Er, we think they meant pepper. (That, or they needed to add Ku Klux Klams instead of sardines.)

It happens. The eBook edition of romance writer Susan Andersen’s “Baby, I’m Yours,” has this on page 293.

“He stiffened for a moment but then she felt his muscles loosen as he shitted on the ground.”

It doesn’t seem all that romantic to me, but I don’t want to judge others. Or then again it could be she wanted to write: ‘shifted.’

When Karen Harper wrote ‘The Queen’s Governess’, she most likely did not intend to introduce dim sum into the Middle Ages. Or was it just a dim proofreader?

‘In the weak light of dawn, I tugged on the gown and sleeves I’d discarded like a wonton last night to fall into John’s arms.’

The poor little pudding. Could be there is a proofreader somewhere wantin a new job.

But not everyone notices a typo straight away: in 1931 the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defined the word ‘dord’ as a noun used in physics and chemistry meaning ‘density.’ It wasn’t until eight years later that a scientist queried the etymology of the word.

It was discovered that Austin M. Patterson, Webster’s chemistry editor had originally written:

“D or d” – noun: abbreviated form of density.

Tokyo stock exchange

photograph: Stéfan

But mild embarrassment is one thing; utter financial meltdown is another. On December 15, 2005 Mizuho Securities made a public offering of job recruitment company J-Com for 610,000 yen per share ($5,041). Or they thought they had. A typo had reduced the price to one yen per share.

Another typo offered the public 41 times the number of J-Com Co. shares actually in existence.

Unfortunately Tokyo Stock Exchange rules do not allow companies to say sorry let me read that again. In just twenty four hours, these two typos cost Mizuho Securities $225 million.

A typo can even mean the difference between life or death. In 1985, Bruce Wayne Morris was convicted of robbery and murder in a California court and the sentencing jury was asked to decide between execution, or life imprisonment.

But the judge’s written instructions to the jury had a typo: their directions said that the accused would not have the possibility of making parole – but he accidentally left out the word ‘not’.

The jury, now mistakenly thinking that it was a choice between executing Morris or having him roaming the streets again in a few years, sentenced him to death.

It took 10 years and a Federal Appeals Court to sort it out. It cost millions. Well California could afford it, at least there was no fiscal crisis.

Wait a minute …

Chile fifty pesos coin

photograph: B1mbo
coin from pre-Chiie Chile

While we’re on the subject of fiscal embarrassment; in December of 2008, Chile startedminting fifty peso coins with the name of their own country misspelled.

Worse, it took ten months for anyone to notice that they were living in Chile not Chiie.

Not enough Chile made life too hot for mint engraver Pedro Urzua Lizana and his boss Gregorio Iniguez and they lost their jobs.

The coins have since become collector’s items; at the time fifty pesos was worth about ten cents, but now they’re worth a great deal more.

So next time you’re in Chiie, look out for one. It could be worth your whiie.

Iran’s Organization of the Holy Qu’ran recently castigated Iranian publishers who outsourced production of the holy book to Chinese printers because they were filled with typographical errors.

But for sacred error, the 1631 reprint of the King James Bible – better known as the Wicked Bible – wrote the book.

Since book printing back then was like copying War and Peace longhand, mistakes were inevitable. So, to their credit, royal printers Robert Barker and Martin Lucas made only one error, missing out a word in Exodus 20:14.

People forget the 783,137 words they got right. Typical. Instead they just went on and on about their one tiny little mistake:

“Thou shalt commit adultery.”

the Wicked Bible

Here it is, if you don’t believe me …

King Charles I took the moral high ground and ordered that the printers be stripped of their business license and fined 300 pounds for their oversight – at that time, £300 was roughly equivalent to a lifetime’s wages.

The King then ordered every existing copy of the offending book to be burned, so unfortunately today only eleven of the original Bibles exist.

The moral of this story?

Always check your work carefully to ensure that you have not any words out or made any splling errors.

And most importantly – look at the fine print before you commit adultery.

I hope you enjoyed my post. And because I want to see you all back here regularly, I am offering a free copy of Looking for Mr. Goodstory to anyone who joins my blog! It’s a collection of my favorite blog posts over the last six months – all you have to do is join up, then write to me at colin underscore falconer underscore author at hotmail dot com. I’ll send you a copy as a mobi Epub or PDF file!

Colin Falconer, historical fiction

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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  1. prudencemacleod says:

    I don’t care how much editing gets done, typos will happen. Especially for those of us with a small issue, but we are forming a support group. Dyslexics of the world, untie!

  2. alvaradofrazier says:

    I’ve learned to start my day with reading your posts. Laughter in the morning makes for a better day. Now how about those ‘autocorrect’ messages on iPhone’s, those are hilarious.

    • Thanks Alvarado. I saw someone reading an entire book about autocorrect the other day. An actual printed one. Are there really that many or does someone sit around dreaming them up?

  3. I didn’t just enjoy this post, I loved it! Especially the Susan Anderson typo…yeah, that sounds too romantic for me to handle! Just imagining the reaction of readers made me laugh so hard I cried. Thanks for sharing. Now I’m off to see if I can locate that book, along with a new coffee table book about Egpt. 🙂

    • Thanks Kristy. The coffee table book about Egpt is sadly hard to find. But I think Susan did a little self promoting of her own typo (nothing wrong with that!) so that should be do-able (is that a real word now?)

  4. charismaloy says:

    Or hire an editor with an eye for that stuff.Here’s a shameless pug..

  5. charismaloy says:

    Enjoyed it again as usual Colin! I look forward to your posts!

  6. So funny! I’ll read along and find typos all the time, even in paper books. None of them are as entertaining as your examples, though!

  7. Jo Carroll says:

    Great post – and somehow it’s funny when other people make the mistake and mortifying when we do! (Years ago, I had to write a report for the Court about a little boy called Philip. Except my old Amstrad insisted he should be called ‘phallus.’ Time for some serious copy editing!)

  8. Deliberately Delicious says:

    Thank you for this entertaining post! I’m usually a good spiller, I mean speller, but because I’m a terrible typist, I have to edit carefully. Of course I’ve had to learn this the hard way 🙂

  9. Hilarious! Must join this blog. And yes, the autocorrect drives me nuts. Especially when I type a comment and notice it AFTER posting!

  10. Pingback: Monday Mentions: Kittens, Earwax, Pole Dancing & Jar Cat Trauma « Amy Shojai's Blog

  11. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back!

  12. Pingback: Monday Mentions: Kittens, Earwax, Pole Dancing & Jar Cat Trauma | AMY SHOJAI'S Bling, Bitches & Blood

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