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Wurst of times: How typos can change history


Tiara Walters writes for Daily Maverick's climate crisis unit, Our Burning Planet. A recipient of the South African National Parks environmental journalist of the year award, she's written for leading African and international publications for nearly 20 years, including the American Polar Society’s Polar Times, the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica and the Sunday Times. She was the first South African woman journalist to oversummer in Antarctica with the South African National Antarctic Programme. In addition to the climate crisis, she has a special interest in the illegal wildlife trade and other global conservation issues, the natural sciences as well as space sciences. Her work in broadcasting includes environmental radio and a stint as field presenter for 50/50, the SABC's long-running conservation television show. She has also contributed widely to the publishing industry as book editor and ghostwriter. Photo:

Do not ask how or why, but there was a good possibility that I recently found myself leafing through ‘The American Enemy: The History of French Anti-Americanism’ by Philippe Roger. Then, this: he “embodies … a propensity for malapropisms and spelling errors. He also tends to think the world revolves around him, and modesty is not his strong suit: he is a curious mix of braggart and bourgeois”.

It was such a fine description of our Donald John Trump that I was inflicted with a real second of “wish I’d written that” envy.

Except, this “bourgeois braggart” was the eponymous protagonist of vaudeville hit Le Voyage de Monsieur Perrichon – a farcical parable that shows why, author Roger argues, it’s better to be rescued than do the rescuing. Case in point: French patriotists might never recover from that most enduring Americentric sentiment. Were it not for Uncle Sam rocking up in Paris in August 1944, the proudest among tricolor devotees would undoubtedly still be waving a distinctly more German colour scheme.

Which brings us neatly back to Trump. Absolutely no offence intended to the Bavarian strand of DNA otherwise identified as “Trump’s paternal grandfather, Friedrich” that partially produced this swaggering, third-generation abomination of the English language. It’s just that, these days, it’s hard not to argue that all roads of morbid fascination lead straight back to the 45th president of the United States.

Much has been said about the man’s spelling and this is worrying not because the world might be ruined by someone of supposedly subordinate intelligence. Einstein and the Queen’s English weren’t best friends, he once wrote to fellow German physicist Max Born, “because of the treacherous spelling”. He was a second-language speaker, after all.

Apparently, so is Trump.

Trouble is, Einstein and his press office didn’t wield their inventive grasp of linguistics to unwittingly trigger an international incident.

Iran has a robust, clandestine nuclear weapons programme that it has tried and failed to hide from the world and from its own people,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders claimed in an official statement on the last day of April.

The implications of defying the 2015 nuclear deal, and presiding over a rollicking but secretive campaign to pulverise swathes of the planet, are non-trivial. Look at what happened to Iran’s neighbour to the west back in 2003. And it didn’t even have weapons of mass destruction.

We spent $2-trillion, thousands of lives. Obviously, it was a mistake,” Trump droned in a 2016 presidential election debate with none other than Jeb Bush, former US President George W Bush’s younger brother.

No small irony, then, that just more than two years later the Trump administration would do little to assuage Americentric fears of foreign domination by momentarily turning Iran’s non-nuclear-weapons programme into a full-blown plot to take over the world. It had come down to a single letter. As the statement’s hastily corrected version reveals, “has” should have been “had”, and was put down to a “clerical error” rather than, more appropriately perhaps, a political stuff-up of global consequence.

But who cares about diplomatic delicacies these days?

To paraphrase the man himself, we can make mistakes. Sure. But, even a drunken department editor of a newspaper in a ****hole African country knows that a typo in an opening paragraph is a red flag for whatever follows: so it’s the first thing you proofread. Backwards. Back in the day, my editor loved to slur this lesson at all newsroom recruits, cub and veteran, even – or especially – amid his post-boozy-lunch pomp, swagger and ceremony. We awaited these sozzled displays of editorial machismo – they were at once entertaining and chilling.

You never knew when next a mini-warhead – such as the resident pilates ball or vuvuzela – would whoosh past your head. Or his sabre-rattling wit would cut you to the quick, and leave you snivelling into your Simba chips because you refused to share them with him. The only certainty was that something would go awry some time after 14:30.

Behind me sat a multilingual journalist with a history at the European broadsheets. Tie forever slung over his shoulder, it seemed he was in the constant act of dining to sustain the headline feature wobbling just above his constricted belt. He was always on the phone to, say, London, Paris, Munich, Moscow – in the local vernacular. Their, or, when simply thrashing out articles on his keyboard, his own distinct vocalisations. This inimitable native language involved belching words starting with the letter “b”. “Bulawayo” was a firm favourite, often followed by the names of two of the paper’s star writers. Bless.

When the business end of the alphabet got boring, he settled on a pretty, pint-sized editor good at raising the male mercury in her collection of comely stilettos. One day she clickety-clacked over to him, grabbed the big man by the collar and hissed, “If you burp my name again, I’ll ****ing kill you.” It was effective. He moved on to the next letter in line.

These unscheduled sonic explosions happened with such prepossessing force and regularity, especially when the office was quiet, that I never did work out if the man had a real chronic tic disorder or was just having everyone on. When offered his own sound-proof booth away from the glare of the office’s open-plan design, he declined. The strangest thing about the situation was that it was not to be spoken of. He was esteemed.

It was the most distracting environment I ever had to work in, but our opening paragraphs were always unassailable.

The erroneous nuclear statement emerging from the White House didn’t even have to apply the first-paragraph principle, for the trifling reason that it’s all of a paragraph long.

Yet, a month after issuing a piece of copy that would have invited at least one newsroom vuvuzela to be aimed at her inner ear, the secretary of arguably the most powerful press office on earth is still in her job, free to sow chaos.

Think ‘chaos’ is a strong word?

Chaos Theory is a branch of mathematics. It holds that small changes in dynamic systems may trigger vast differences in the final outcome. The famous example you may know: the flap of a butterfly’s wing in China, for argument’s sake, causes a hurricane in Texas.

Other seemingly inconsequential examples of misplaced letters or punctuation can redirect personal microhistory.

Last month, Swedish newspaper Blekinge Läns Tidning reported that a local tattoo artist had misspelled a five-year-old boy’s name when etching it into his mother’s arm. To make peace with a tattoo that may take up to a year to fix with laser surgery, the woman has come up with the ultimate ode to flexibility: just rename the boy. Erstwhile “Kevin” will now be “Kelvin”, to reflect the misdemeanour, until the end of his days.

Dan Quayle knows all too well how a mistake can score its way into your record forever. His professional life is not defined by his term as 44th vice-president of the United States. Instead, by that time at a mock spelling bee in 1992 when he urged a 12-year-old New Jersey boy, William Figueroa, to add the letter “e” to the end of the word “potato”.

It was more than a gaffe,” Quayle’s memoir, Standing Firm, would opine. “It was a defining moment of the worst imaginable kind.”

Quayle may also have earned himself a place in Potato: A Global History, the complete 2011 biography of humanity’s favourite edible tuber. Surely a result poor Quayle would never have foreseen while misdirecting a gullible child almost two decades earlier.

In the macro box, we have the missing “hyphen” that blew up the unmanned Mariner 1 spacecraft on 22 July 1962, just minutes after takeoff, nearly 100 miles above the Atlantic. Or, more accurately, the manual typo in the guidance software that would fling the craft off course, forcing the range safety officer to issue the destruct command. The alternative? Unthinkable. Letting the Venus flyby mission crash in the “North Atlantic shipping lanes or in an inhabited area”, Nasa’s official website account reads.

Rather high profile as the first US planetary quest, the aborted mission was “wrecked by the most expensive hyphen in history”, science writer Arthur C Clarke is quoted as saying in The Little Book of Big F*#k-Upsand pretty much everywhere else. The reported cost of the mission – $18.5-million. In 1960s dollars.

(For the record, more technical accounts claim that the errant “hyphen” was an “overline”: a horizontal line you can place above a letter or symbol. Perhaps “hyphen” is just easier to explain to the public. And Clarke might have reasoned that “hyphen” had a nicer ring to it.)

Either way, we can conclude from this that missing punctuation is not without historical import – especially in the American context.

George W’s “WMD” action-hero rhetoric was so persuasive that the majority of Republican respondents in this 2012 poll believed that the 2003 Iraq invasion was rationalised by verified nuclear arsenal (which, the Chameleon wants me to add, was never found).

Look, not all succinct spelling errors will make their mark on history. Stephen Storc’s 2012 memoir Spelling Errors, the account of his life as assistant to entertainment mogul Aaron Spelling and wife Candy, may corroborate this – “fascinating for what there was of it … just don’t be disappointed by the length”, one Amazon reviewer warns.

But errors in the digisphere. Now there’s an underestimated thing.

The architect of an original “clerical error” that also started its life as a now-defunct tweet can effortlessly delete her tracks even after the butterfly has fluttered its wings. DM


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