Thursday, June 10, 2010

The madness - and genius - of InDesign spellcheck

Publishing people always debate the merits of the page-design programs Quark and InDesign. It's the layout equivalent of Mays vs. Mantle or Magic vs. Bird, except about 98 percent dorkier. Different magazines and newspapers use different systems and editors and artists often have to adapt and learn both, as a publication might switch systems. I don't have the technical knowledge to really debate the strengths and weaknesses of either. I know how to use the basics of both but certainly don't know enough to be called an expert.

But I do know that InDesign has the best spellcheck system in publishing. Now, using spellcheck isn't the most exciting thing for many people, and rightfully so. It's a vital tool, but not one that usually brings joy, confusion and wonder. It's there to correct typos, not entertain. InDesign is the exception.

Shortly after we started using InDesign, everyone noticed bizarre suggestions popping up on spellcheck. Often the suggestions shared but a single letter with the offending word, as if InDesign simply threw out random words that had no connection to the highlighted choice. Other times InDesign seemed to have psychological insight into the highlighted word. InDesign could be petty, occasionally cruel. A few years ago I put together a list of some of our greatest hits from InDesign. That list has been lost, but I've been accumulating new ones. Here, some favorites.

Ashton (as in Kutcher): Satan - that's a bit harsh, though I briefly considered the possibility the first time I saw the adorable fetus strangle himself at the conclusion of the director's cut of Ashton's Butterfly Effect.

Snooki: Snake, snaky, sneaky - Have never watched an episode of Jersey Shore. But like 93 percent of Americans, I've absorbed the show through osmosis and feel comfortable that InDesign knows what it's talking about with these choices.

Armstrong: Harum-scarum - One of my favorite suggestions. Think of someone editing a story about the seven-time Tour de France champion. Spellcheck flags Armstrong. Great, thinks the writer. Maybe I used two g's or typed an extra m. Instead, InDesign asks if you didn't really mean to spell harum-scarum, which, for the record, means "acting in a reckless or rash way."

Pacino: Pacing, passion, pausing, posing, policing - InDesign nicely sums up Al Pacino's career in five words.

Rihanna: urinal - InDesign possesses a juvenile sense of humor.

Octomom - Ottoman, economy, actinium, outman, etymon
Suleman (Octomom's last name) - Yes-man, Somalian, seaming, sliming, semen

Showtime: Sheikhdom - One of InDesign's more confusing entries. How would anyone possibly spell sheikhdom as showtime? At Adobe, which engineer in charge of InDesign put that in as one of the suggestions for showtime? Okay, they share the first two letters. But the o and e are separated by five keys. The h and w are on different lines and different parts of each line. Just realize that if you ever see a paper talk about Magic Johnson's Sheikhdom Lakers, they most certainly use InDesign and not Quark.

Scooby-Doo: Psychobiology - ?

Wahlberg: liberal, whalebone

Stepkids: seedpods, setbacks, stupidities - The person in charge of InDesign's spellcheck must have had a difficult experience with the new wife's kids as he's obviously not a fan of children that didn't come from his seed.

Stepdad: styptic, skeptic, stupid, estopped, stoppled - InDesign teaches me new things every day. I like to think I have a decent vocabulary, but InDesign has words at its disposal that haven't been used since they were created hundreds of years ago. Ever hear a plumber use the word stopple? And, again, how does InDesign not recognize stepdad, but is perfectly fine with estopped, which is called "archaic" by the dictionary, a Middle English word, meaning it probably came before 1500.. confounding, yet learned.

Aniston: Einstein, nesting, moisten, ingesting, amnestying, nauseating - Einstein, nauseating...okay. But moisten? A girl I used to work with hated the word moist. Moist and probe, two words she refused to ever use when writing headlines.

Beatles: Ablates, oblates, boletus - The most famous group in music history. Perhaps the most influential group in music history. But not to InDesign. InDesign believes Beatles isn't a real word, that you need something that people are actually familiar with. Like ablates (to remove or destroy, especially by cutting), oblates (flattened or depressed at the poles), and boletus (any of a genus of boletes - as a porcini - some of which are poisonous and others edible). John Lennon said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. But to InDesign they're not even bigger than a mushroom.

Jovi: Devil, Jehovah - InDesign can't decide if it likes the group or hates it.

Gingrich: Gonorrhea - No comment.

B-Cup: Built-up

Tac-toe: Oatcake - Huh?

Google: Gigolo

December: Dismember - A fairly memorable month. Most people are familiar with it. InDesign, though, tends to have more violent thoughts. It asks: In that Christmas story where you mention December 25, are you sure you didn't mean to spell dismember?

Hamptons: Moppets, impaction, impotent
Baldwin: Bulgarian
Beckham: Belching
Minibar: Namibian
Celine: Senile

Former Playboy Playmate Kendra Wilkinson (that's her full name, sort of like Rookie Phenom Stephen Strasburg or Radical Cleric Moktada al-Sadr) has been in the news recently for a leaked sex tape. InDesign was ahead of the game. It's suggestion for Kendra? Kinkier. And for Wilkinson: Leakiness, wildness.

Hunky: Andy, hunt, unyoke - Who's Andy? And what's the relation to hunky? Seems obvious that whoever inserted suggestions for "hunky" was busy daydreaming about a strapping youngster named Andrew, perhaps the guy in the adjoining cubicle. The worker couldn't express this love - workplace rules frown on such things - so he/she put a sly joke into the system, so that now, whenever someone using InDesign uses the word hunky in a sentence, they'll be asked if they want to change it to Andy, since Andrew - that handsome co-worker - is just so hot.

Drescher: Deerstalker
Boybander: Bobsledder
Beckinsale: Pekingese
Pitt: Pate, Pete, pita

Gosselin: Tussling, outselling, gassing, goosing
Whisperer: Horsewhipper - Exactly what it sounds like, to flog a horse with a whip. A bit disappointed InDesign didn't offer up Horse Whisperer as an alternate.

Bambi: Bimbo - InDesign has little respect for the classics, or it's been programmed to think of Bambi as a stripper instead of a cartoon. But the suggestion isn't that strange once you've seen that InDesign doesn't even recognize Disney. Suggestions for the most famous animation company in the world? Addison, dowsing.

Baywatch's: Brachiate's, brachial's - InDesign apparently didn't watch TV in the early 1990s. Or, maybe it did and simply didn't like the cast, as its suggestion for actress Yasmine Bleeth is "asinine."

I sometimes look at InDesign's spellcheck as being a living organism, capable of causing great harm, like the computer system that starts the war in Terminator. Or it's a cousin to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A year ago, the Brigham Young University student newspaper, The Daily Universe, recalled 18,500 copies of the paper after InDesign's spellcheck caused chaos on the campus.

Some poor copy editor ran spellcheck on a photo caption and clicked a change for the word apostle, making it apostate. So instead of talking about the "members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles," it referred to the Twelve Apostates. But that's the evil genius of InDesign spellcheck. By putting apostate as a suggestion, there was a chance - a small chance - that some poor editor would accidentally click on it, changing apostle to apostate. InDesign spellcheck simply waited for the right moment to strike. And what better place to do it than at one of the most religious campuses in the country? Maybe the mistake gets laughed off at a secular school. At Brigham Young it caused a crisis.

One student, a media arts major named Hillary Miller, said, "I hope someone isn't just fooling around. It would be sad if someone was trying to do harm to our church."

No one was trying to harm the church. It was just the InDesign spellcheck, the most playful, arrogant, wise, confounding and mischievous spellcheck in the land.


david blatner said...

Fun article, Shawn. Unfortunately, I cannot make InDesign err in most of the ways you propose. Ashton never seems to show up as satan, stepdad doesn't result in stupid or estopped. I will admit that Aniston results in Einstein, and bambi leads to bimbo, but those aren't quite as outrageous.

Of course, results do vary, depending on the language you set the text to in the Control or Character panel. For example, if you set it to English:UK you get "stranger" results. If you choose English:Medical, then Ashton recommends "ostomy".

I don't doubt you've seen many of these, but I wish I knew how to repeat the results. (I tried CS3 and CS5.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's crazy man. They should really try to do something to fix that.