Five of the most enduring typos in history
Updated: Jan 30, 2022
As is my growing Christmas tradition (admittedly, it is only my second year on the blog), this month I wanted to write in defence of errors.
Most of us know the stories about accidents that led to great discoveries in the field of science. Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin when he allowed mould to grow on an experiment during his holiday break.
But what about literature? Well it happens there, too. Sometimes those errors go down in history. Here I’m going to look at my top five.
5. Google and googol
Arguably not literature, but I think the name of the most successful search engine on the planet deserves a mention.
The founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came up with the name for their new search engine in the nineties, when Page was discussing it with his students at Stanford University. One student, Sean Anderson, suggested ‘googolplex’ – one of the largest describable numbers. Page approved and shortened it to ‘googol’.
However, it was Anderson who searched for the domain name online and entered ‘google’ instead of ‘googol’. Finding the domain for ‘google’ available, Page decided to stick with it, because he liked it so much. It has since become one of the most recognisable brands in the world.
4. Finnegans Wake
James Joyce wrote his last novel, Finnegans Wake, in an experimental style. It was so experimental that when an error was introduced during its writing, Joyce decided to keep it.
He dictated parts of the novel to his friend and fellow writer, Samuel Beckett. One day, as Joyce was dictating and Beckett was typing, they were interrupted by someone knocking on the door. Joyce responded, ‘Come in,’ and Beckett typed his words into the manuscript. The mistake amused Joyce, so he never took it out.
Finnegans Wake has been lauded as a literary success – a pioneer of a new style. One could argue that that tiny error contributed to its individuality.
And if anyone noticed what seems to be a missing apostrophe in the novel’s title, that could be the subject of a completely different post…
3. A typist’s typo
According to Jilly Cooper in Between the Covers (I could find no other source for this, so I put my faith in Jilly), W H Auden deliberately left what started life as a mistake in one of his poems.
Like Joyce, Auden had help writing up his work. He wrote his poems out by hand and a secretary typed them up for him. But on this occasion his secretary couldn’t read his handwriting. They substituted one adjective for another, probably making their best guess at Auden’s intended meaning.
When Auden discovered the mistake, he was so pleased with it, he kept it. Just like Fleming's mould, the mistake led to a breakthrough and ultimately improved the work.
2. Shakespeare made mistakes too
Well, not Shakespeare* exactly, but his printers. Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, made the name Imogen famous. Except it’s actually supposed to be Innogen.
The character of Imogen was based on a historical British queen. It is now thought that the double ‘n’ in Innogen was mistaken for a single ‘m’ by the printers. The mistake has been reproduced for hundreds of years and only came into question in the twentieth century.
* Although Shakespeare did spell his own name variously as ‘Shakspere’, ‘Shakspeare’ and even just ‘Shakp’. Since he’s Shakp, we’ll let him off the hook.
1. Cinderella’s slippers
Cinderella’s slippers were made of glass. Right? Wrong. It’s more likely they were made of fur.
In Charles Perrault’s original French version of the story, Cinderella’s slippers are made of ‘verre’ – the French for glass. Honore de Balzac believed that this might have been a corruption of ‘vair’ – fur.
Some have suggested that Perrault might have heard the story told, rather than seen it written down. Perhaps he misunderstood it. Or perhaps he thought glass slippers sounded more fun than fur.
Fur slippers would certainly make more sense. Fur was considered a luxury at the time. And they would have been a lot more comfortable than glass.
But this is my favourite example of a mistake that is better than the original. The glass slippers are magical precisely because they are so impractical. Would little girls still be dreaming about Cinderella’s slippers had they been fur? I’m not convinced.
Sometimes an error really is better than the intended idea. It can pay not to be too regimented when correcting your text. A little magic might just slip in with the mistakes.