One letter away

A vein of typos causing embarrassment. PUBIC for PUBLIC is a stand-out here; some Language Log discussion here (AZ, 10/13/06, “What the L?!”) and here (GP, same day, “Pubic information”).

More recently, this in from South Bend IN, courtesy of Victor Steinbok on ADS-L:

(It was caught and corrected fairly quickly.)

Tickled by the idea of pubic schools. Intro to Oral Sex, whatever.

Now, from Ben Zimmer, another unfortunately missing letter, on Craig Silverman’s “Regret the error” blog, here:

This blog post originally stated that one in three black men who have sex with me is HIV positive. In fact, the statistic applies to black men who have sex with men. (link)

Typos that change one word into another are at least modestly common, and the change can be by omission (probably the most common), addition, substitution, or exchange.

That’s the typos. But there are at least two other ways “one letter off” transformations can happen. The first of these is deliberate (orthographic) word play. For example, as I noted on ADS-L on September 22:

Graham Rawle produced hundreds of compositions in his “Lost Consonants” series (#772, from 2002: “Pigs have a natural talent for seeking out ruffles”), originally published in British newspapers.

According to Rawle’s site (link), the series appeared in the Weekend Guardian for 15 years and in the Sydney Morning Herald and various magazines, and there are 8 books of the things already published.

But as others have pointed out [on ADS-L], this kind of orthographic play (with omissions, additions, substitutions, and transpositions) no doubt goes back to the beginnings of literacy. Surely there’s a “just one stroke away” variant involving Chinese characters.

The ADS-L discussion actually started from another sort of orthographic foolery, in which these spelling relationships are taken at least semi-seriously.

On September 22 Jon Lighter reported on Stephen Colbert’s recent “Reason is just one letter away from treason.” And an earlier Jon Stewart interview with “Remember, ‘Freud’ is just one letter away from ‘fraud.'”

Things quickly cascaded back in time. From Garson O’Toole:

The introduction to the “Collected Writings” of Elizabeth Jane Weston (2000) says “one indication of her eminence is the fact that Thomas Farnaby’s 1634 list of eminent ancient and modern writers, his Index Poeticus, published in London, includes her as one of only seven English writers, and the only woman of any place or time.”. Excerpt:

The merest trifle sets kindred spirits at odds:
a single letter’s difference changes eros to eris.

Bill Mullins:

Newsbank has cites going back to 1989.  Cat is 1 letter from Rat; anger is 1 letter from danger; diet is 1 letter away from die; Bob is one letter from boob; HPV is one letter from HIV; etc.

And so it went, eventually going back to Plautus.

Some of this borders on what you might think of as “orthographic magic”, in which mere spelling expresses some deeper relationship between words.

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