Arts & Life
Accidentally, 'Autocorrect' Makes Good Texts Go Bad
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:03 am
As the curator of the website damnyouautocorrect.com, Jillian Madison receives hundreds of autocorrected text message a day. Smartphone users know that the autocorrect feature frequently changes whatever innocent message you wanted to send to your mother — or co-worker — into something wildly embarrassing or just plain weird.
Among the more frequent submissions Madison receives to her site: "haha" changes into "Shabaka," who was actually an Egyptian pharaoh; "hell" morphs into "he'll"; "pick me up" turns into "oil me up." And it's easy to see how the autocorrect of "kids" into "LSD" could cause a bit of confusion and concern.
"If you say, you know, 'I'm going to run and pick up the kids,' it often turns into, 'I'm going to run and pick up the LSD. I'll be home in a little while,' " Madison tells Renee Montagne on Morning Edition.
Linguist Ben Zimmer says that the history of automatic spellcheckers goes back to Microsoft Word and other word processors, but the technology for smartphones differs from those because it tries to understand what the user means based on both the proximity of the letters to each other on that tiny little virtual keyboard and on completing a word based on what it thinks you meant.
So if you're trying to tell a friend about a great double play by "Derek Jeter," don't be surprised if your phone turns that into "Derek heterosexual." Because the phone's dictionary might not recognize Jeter, it turns the J to a close letter on the keyboard – H — and completes the new word, "heter," that it's now created.
Sometimes the autocorrections have a sort of poetic ring of truth to them – like "Grandpa bought me a corn dog from the devil," instead of "deli." But others could cause minor heart palpitations and raise your blood pressure a few notches.
One girl named Hannah received a text from her father that said, "Your mom and I are going to divorce next month." Big news to share in a text — except the father quickly corrected himself, sayying, "I wrote Disney and this phone changed it. We are going to Disney."
Damn You, Autocorrect's collection of texts includes more than a few exchanges that, well, aren't fit for print in good company. Simply put, autocorrect seems to have its mind in the gutter.
As Madison says, "Autocorrect has a mind of its own, and it's often a very dirty mind."
Zimmer points out that this tendency toward the tasteless comes partly from self-selection — the funniest autocorrects are usually the most hilariously inappropriate. These texts get submitted to the Damn You, Autocorrect website more often than innocuous ones.
"But I think it also says something about the sociology of these situations," Zimmer says. "You're texting with your parents or co-workers or loved ones. And there's a whole panoply of new, embarrassing situations you can find yourself in."
When your phone autocorrects "I'll be around later" to "I'll be aroused later" in a text to your boss, a whole new level of mortifying sets in. It's a brand new way for some already-fraught social situations to become embarrassing.
So what's the solution — just turn the autocorrect off? The technology does get better over time by learning from your previous texts, and the answer may just be to take an extra second to make sure you're not sending something you didn't mean to. When the wrong things do show up, Zimmer says, just have a laugh about it, and look at it as a chance to learn some new vocabulary:
"If 'holy moly' changes to 'holy molybdenum,' you can learn the name of an element on the periodic table," he suggests.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Our computers and smartphones have an almost limitless power to embarrass us. Say you write an email or a text message, and your computer or smartphone doesn't quite send out what you wanted.
Pop culture blogger Jillian Madison has collected hundreds of unintended text messages in her book "Damn You, autocorrect!: Awesomely Embarrassing Text Messages You Didn't Mean to Send."
We invited her - along with the linguist Ben Zimmer, who runs the website Virtual Thesaurus - into our New York studios, and they spoke with Renee about how autocorrect goes awry.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
I want to start with you, Jillian. You've received hundreds of copies of autocorrected text messages a day. What are the most common word changes?
Ms. JILLIAN MADISON (Author): First of all, I would have to say, ha-ha. You know, laughing. That turns into Shabaka, who was actually an Egyptian pharaoh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: So that could be a learning experience.
Ms. MADISON: Yes, it can. Another really popular one is hell, it turns into he'll, H-E'L-L, which is the bane of a lot of people's existence.
MONTAGNE: Also, pick me up can turn to oil me up?
Ms. MADISON: Oil me up. Yes. That's always interesting. And kids turn into LSD, as well. So if you, you know, you say: I'm going to run out and pick up the kids, it often turns into: I'm going to run out and pick up the LSD. I'll be home in a little while.
MONTAGNE: Let's talk about some more of these text messages that you've collected in the book. But first, I want to just, Ben, ask you: What is the history of spell check when it comes to smartphones, and what's the technical thing that's going on there?
Mr. BEN ZIMMER (Executive Producer, VisualThesaurus.com): There are definitely predecessors, going back to the automatic spell-checking from Microsoft Word and other word-processing programs. This has really exploded into a new phenomenon since the introduction of smartphones that use these virtual keyboards. And suddenly, we have millions of people trying to tap out messages on these phones. And we also have a relatively new technology of trying to understand what the users mean.
So it does it by both autocorrecting, sometimes just based on the proximity of letters on the keyboard. It's going to make the best guess of what letters you meant to type. And then it also does a kind of an auto-complete. But that leads to problems like, for instance, one of Jillian's examples: If you're talking about Derek Jeter, the baseball player spelled J-E-T-E-R, well, if his name isn't in the dictionary, it's both going to guess that perhaps that J should have been an H. And it'll also try to complete the word, and you'll end up with heterosexual. So completely different from what you meant to type, even if you were typing it correctly.
MONTAGNE: There's one text message that changed Disney - pretty innocent - into divorce. Why don't you read us that one?
Ms. MADISON: I believe it was a father was talking to his daughter, and he said: Your mom and I are going to divorce next month. Hannah, the girl who received the text message, she said: What? What do you mean you're going to divorce? What's going on? And the father said: Disney. I wrote Disney. We're going to Disney, not to divorce. So the poor daughter almost had a heart attack there.
MONTAGNE: I have to say, reading some of these, they make, in ways, some kind of sense and some kind of poetic sense: Grandpa bought me a corn dog from the devil.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: From the devil? Is the response. And then, well, deli. Ha-ha-ha. You know, I meant deli. Well, deli, devil - that makes sense. But we can't even talk about quite a few of those in this collection of text. Because, I mean, simply put, autocorrect has its mind in the gutter.
Ms. MADISON: Absolutely. I say autocorrect has a mind of its own, and it's often a very dirty mind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: But why do you think?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, the ones that are funniest, of course, are the ones that are just so hilariously inappropriate. So there's a kind of self-selection going on. With the ones that Jillian was receiving to "Damn You, Autocorrect!," of course, they're going to be the ones that are the dirtiest, the most risque.
But, you know, I think it also says something about the sociology of these situations. You know, you're texting with your parents or coworkers or loved ones, and there's a whole sort of panoply of new, embarrassing situations that you can find yourself in, so that when one of those extremely embarrassing words slips through, it can create this fraught situation in the social relationship there.
Ms. MADISON: And it's so much more embarrassing, you know, telling your boss that you'll be aroused later, instead of maybe around later.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MADISON: When you say something like that to your boss, there's that whole new level of mortifying...
Mr. ZIMMER: Right.
Ms. MADISON: ...that sets in.
MONTAGNE: Ben, what is your advice for people who use text messaging frequently? I mean, should they just turn off the autocorrect function, if it starts to become a problem?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, that's one solution. You can just turn it off, but it learns from your own behavior, so it does get better over time. And so I would say, you know, if you're using it, just be careful - obviously, before you hit that send button, to just take a quick look, especially if you're talking to your boss or your parents, just to make sure that you're not sending out the wrong thing.
And when wrong things do show up, try to have a good laugh about it, maybe even learn some new vocabulary. If hilarious changes to hoosegow, you can learn a new slang term for prison. If holy moly changes to holy molybdenum, you can learn the name of an element on the Periodic Table.
INSKEEP: That's linguist Ben Zimmer and Jillian Madison, who blogs at PopHangover. Her book, "Damn You, Autocorrect!" comes out today. You can find more embarrassing text messages from the Jillian's book at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.