With several of my columns savaged by typographical errors, “typos” for short, and going ballistic over these, I certainly sympathize with the Vatican.
What an epic typo it found on the 6,000 special commemorative medallions in gold, silver, and bronze honoring Pope Francis’ assumption to the papal throne. After having been distributed to retailers, the Vatican just last week discovered that “Jesus”—probably the most recognized and revered name on the planet was misspelled “Lesus”.
The typo was on the Latin sentence engraved around one side of the coin by a 7th century theologian which Pope Francis said inspired him to become a priest. In English this reads as: “Jesus, therefore, saw the tax collector, and because he saw, by having mercy and by choosing, He said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Instead of “Jesus” though, inscribed was “Lesus”.
One explanation for the typo would be the fact that Jesus in Latin (which has a single case) is spelled as IESUS, and the engraver’s honest mistake was that his “I” looks like an “L”. But the problem was the horizontal part of its “L”, or its base, was so much elongated that the engraver obviously intended an “L”, which puts the blame on the Vatican designer of the coin. A Vatican spokesman admitted so, saying that the error was made “in the preparation, not the execution.”
Media pounced on the error, and ridiculed it, with one irreverent commentator sarcastically asking why there was no divine intervention to prevent such a monumental mistake in spelling the name of the Son of God. Another asked for an investigation, alleging, that it was a “Lesuit” plot.
Typos have been the bane of the printed word, and certainly of my columns. You’d admire how printers managed this problem in the age of manual type-setting when letters engraved on one lead plate each are assembled by hand to form a word, with the words and the sentences formed seen by the typesetter only in reverse order. A slight slip of the finger or the hand in those candlelit days would have created a lot of typo errors.
The Church probably could have converted more if they could argue that bibles are really from God himself since they were printed without any typos. After all, since these are the Deity’s words, it would have been a cinch to make sure humans didn’t bungle their printing. But of course, there have been so many typos in bibles in the past.
The most infamous of these was in a King James Bible that would later on be called “The Wicked Bible”, printed in the 17th century by Cambridge Press. In that bible the negative “not” was deleted in two important sentences. So it printed that particular commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery,” and that famous saying, to “(T)he unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God.” Another edition of the bible would have the superstitious weaving demonic conspiracy plots: Instead of Jesus, it was Judas going to the garden of Gethsemane to pray (Matthew 26:36).
That was during the era of manual typesetting. But even today, as obvious in the “Lesus” error, technology hasn’t banished typos to oblivion.
Microsoft’s nearly universal “Word” word processing software, even with its automatic spell check—to my extreme consternation as I read my columns as published—doesn’t’ work at 100 percent efficiency that I’ve started to believe in novelist Patricha Highsmith’s nearly supernatural description of typos:
“There was something demoniacal and insuperable about typographical errors, as if they were part of the natural evil that permeated man’s existence, as if they had a life of their own and were determined to manifest themselves no matter what, as surely as weeds in the best-tended gardens.”
One explanation of typos though is that our minds have become so efficient that it reads not individual letters that form a word, but words as a whole, or as what technically has been called a Gestalt. We see the forests, as it were, instead of the trees. Fast readers even have trained themselves to see not only words, but also phrases, even paragraphs.
If one’s mind didn’t work this way, we’d be reading so slowly, at a kindergarten kid’s pace. That we read words rather than work out each individual letter and their sequence is illustrated by the following, which you’d easily read and understand unless you have some major disability:
I cnduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mind, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat letter be in the rhgit pclae.
But that skill of the reading mind—to grasp immediately a word’s meaning without needing to read each letter and its place in a word—is obviously a weakness for writers, and proofreaders: Our minds are trained to ignore typos.
An anonymous writer, probably a proofreader aspiring to be a poet, described the horror of typos in his “Ode to the Typographical Error”*:
The typographical error is a slippery thing and sly,
You can hunt till you are dizzy, but somehow will get by.
‘Til the forms are off the presses, it is strange how still it keeps,
It shrinks down in a corner and it never stirs or peeps.
That typographical error, too small for human eyes,
“Til the ink is on the paper, when it grow to mountain size.
The boss he stares with horror, then grabs his hair and groans.
The copyreader drops his head upon his hand and moans.
The remainder of the issue may be clean as clean can be…
But the typographical error is the only thing you see.
I can imagine Pope Francis grabbing his hair and groaning over the “Lesus” error, as I’ve often done many a morning, after seeing typos in my column.
*Quoted in Hamilton, James “On typographical errors” (The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, September 1993, Volume 53, Issue 3, pp 219-224)
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