Sunday 1 March 2015

Dense typos

I've spent somewhere around 16 hours over the last week, at The Institute and At Home, during the day and the night, reading literature reviews by our final year biologists.  It is a step in the process of carrying out an original pushing-the-frontiers research project: they have to find out what has been done by the giants on whose shoulders they stand.  So I've been correcting a lot of typos and a fair bit of clunky grammar and slightly-off word choice - a substantial minority of the cohort grew up speaking a language other than English. Got me thinking about typos, the smaller the better. One of my favorite anecdotes from Primo Levi's wonderful Periodic Table hinges on a chemical protocol morphing 2-3 drops into 23 drops and firing Levi's crap detector on all cylinders.

You know that I am not above slagging the Arts Block for knowing bugger-all about science, so I am happy to trot out an old lexicographical story about a non existent word that persisted through several editions of the Merriam-Webster's Third New International Dictionary, at least partly because nobody on the editorial floor had done Chemistry. Although lexicographers are not without a sense of humour, which is far more important. You can see the result [R]; the explanation is neat and very similar to Primo's 23 drops. Someone decided to add an abbreviation to the dictionary and typed up an index slip saying D or d, cont./density. Which is fine except that the spaces got omitted and a neologism was created. This was in 1934 before we had word-processors and one way of creating emphasis on a manual typewriter was to add a space between each letter of the word.  This was the convention for the 'head-word' that each slip sought to define. D o r d is so like D or d that the mistake was made.  You won't find the word in your dictionary unless it was printed in the ten years after 1934.

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