When spellcheckers attack: The Cupertino Effect

"The Cupertino Effect" is the technical term for a correct word that is consistently erroneously replaced by spell-checkers. It's named for Microsoft Word 97's habit of changing "co-operation" (a common British spelling) to "Cupertino," yielding such boners as "a 1999 NATO report mentions the 'Organization for Security and Cupertino in Europe'; an EU paper of 2003 talks of 'the scope for Cupertino and joint development of programmes'; a UN report dated January 2005 argues for 'improving the efficiency of international Cupertino'."
Other notorious examples of the Cupertino effect include an article in the Denver Post that turned the Harry Potter villain Voldemort into Voltmeter, one in the New York Times that gave the first name of American footballer DeMeco Ryans as Demerol, and a Reuters story which changed the name of the Muttahida Quami movement of Pakistan into the Muttonhead Quail movement.

It could be worse. Leave out one of the os from the beginning of co-operation as well as the hyphen and you might be offered not Cupertino but copulation. Now that would be an error to write home about. Or perhaps not.

Questions & Answers: Cupertino (via Joho the Blog)


  1. Reminds me that anybody who’s worked on a newspaper design/copydesk knows the danger of the the dropped l when public is used in a headline …

  2. haha!

    Reminds me of one of the more spectacular typos I failed to catch:

    The automatic spellchecker mis-corrected the word “placemats”, resulting in a newspaper listing for the church ladies’ sale of “knitting and placentas”.

    They were not amused.

    We also used to spellcheck the names of local politicians and community figures – not for publication, of course. “Darken Parsnip” was one of them, as I recall.

  3. I was so happy when Apple allowed us ignorant users to turn off auto-correction on the iPhone/Touch. That stupid feature mangled just about every fourth word I typed.

  4. Just a few weeks ago I managed to misspell “inconvenience” and Outlook’s spell check changed it to incontinence.

    As in, “I realize your computer is broken and you haven’t been able to get any work done today – sorry for the incontinence.”

    Saw it as the email disappeared off my screen after hitting the Send button…

  5. I remember that in the 90ies the Claris Works spellchecker on the Mac suggested to replace the term “misattribution” with “masturbation” …

  6. Spell check does not a brain replacement make. My beef is that so many prominent publications still have misspelled words. The New York Times is one of the gravest offenders—almost as bad as The Chicago Sun-Times.

    I understand that typos happen, but not knowing the difference between “their,” “there,” and “they’re” should automatically disqualify an individual from being a paid journalist.

    I’ve been noticing this effect for years without knowing it had a name. I wonder, though: how many writers use spell check without bothering to check the article by eye? Every time I use it, I try to make certain that the replacement words are the correct ones. I’ve goofed on occasion, of course, but not very often. Then again, I hardly ever use spell check.

  7. here’s a good one courtesy of Office 2000 on Windows:
    “Katana” (deadly Japanese Samurai sword) becomes “Kitten” (not so deadly little fluffy thing)….

  8. Many years ago, I wrote a school report comparing the internet to fidonet for dial-up home users.

    Only when dusting it off years later did I notice that 1995-era Microsoft Word replaced all mention of “internet” with “internee”.

    In those days MSFT was still sticking its fingers in its ears, going “lalalalala” and hoping the internet would go away&sup1. So this spellcheck disaster could be deliberate.

    On the other hand, never attribute to malice what you can explain by stupidity.

    ¹ – I’m sure glad no-one does that anymore!

  9. One of the most amusing results of spell-checking gone awry I’ve personally encountered is “opera rational” (presumably the original was supposed to be “operational”)

    Adobe Framemaker’s soundex algorithm and general-purpose dictionary have also turned up some gems in our technical documentation at work:
    – Java lobsters (Java WebStart)
    – Sailors (Solaris)
    – codpiece (codebase)

    It also suggested “fishwives” as the correction for something, but I can’t remember what.

  10. habit of changing “co-operation” (a common British spelling) to “Cupertino,”

    This is incorrect. It changed the mis-spelling “cooperation” to “Cupertino”, rather than the correct spelling “co-operation”.

    When I was a post-grad science student, our departmental lab was the only source of computers for most students. The spellcheckers on these computers were worse than useless, as their dictionaries were full of mis-spellings. This was because they flagged so many technical terms as mis-spellings, that the instant reaction was always to mark a flagged word as correct.

  11. The most amusing ones are the names that get swapped out:

    Diarmuid = dairymaid

    Armand = armband

    Name replacements, which tend to be at the beginning of letters, are usually caught. But correct them often enough and they stick in your head. You start using the spellchecker’s goofy corrections as nicknames.

  12. I had an ex who failed to keep a close enough eye on spellcheck at the end of late-night paper writing and handed in papers from “Deride Moose”.

    Also the street I live on attempts to be corrected as:


    And when spelled with a lowercase first letter, it also offers:


  13. I was working at GE as a consultant in the mid-90’s and was witness to a middle manager enraged at the IT department for “making a fool of him and purposely causing his spell checker to replace Pentium with penis” in an email to his direct reports.

  14. I worked for the long distance carrier MCI during the infamous merger with WorldCom. Several of us were given the task of updating ALL of the training information with the new company name of MCI WorldCom. I will never forget the look on my boss’s face when it was discovered that someone (not me) had gone the extra mile and used spell check to accidentally convert everything to “MCI Whoredom” right before delivering it all to a management meeting. Good stuff!

  15. The first version of Word for Windows used to correct “Novell Netware” to “Novel Knitwear”.

    Also, “Unisys” was corrected to “Anuses”.

  16. I think that’s better than the opposite problem. OS X consistently fails to warn me when I type “wold”, which is a word, but is also usually a misspelling of “would”.

  17. The office manager of my co-op once carelesly used the spellcheck to change every occurrence of the word ‘organisation’ in our board agenda to ‘orgasm.’ That was a fun meeting.

  18. And then there’s this one:

    An employer of mine used to test new applicants for the secretary’s job by dictating a letter that mentioned some of the products that we offered, including “lucite medallion embedments”. Spellcheck rendered this as “mandolin embodiments”. Of course this also is a commentary on the job applicants whose vocabulary skills were so lacking as to not know the words in question. And, also, spellcheck did not know the word “lucite” , which some applicants typed in as “loose site”, which makes no sense at all.

  19. Was this article typed with a spell-checker on auto-correct? The spelling which was historically changed to Cupertino was not “co-operation” as in the article, or “cooperation” as Beanolini suggests, but “cooperatino”, with the final N and O transposed.

  20. There have been times I’ve wished I had used spell check, times I’ve wondered why spell check didn’t have any suggestions, and times when it was a waste of time. The only way it makes things worse is if the user accepts the wrong spelling, though.

    Spell check is a fine tool, but only when supervised. The auto-correct setting, however, should not exist.

  21. A fun illustration of the effect … our marketing team had just given a presentation to one large potential partner, and was asked on short notice to give the same presentation to a different large potential partner. In the rush to change the text, Intelligence became Ciscolilgence. Not a good thing, if you do not want Cisco to know that you talked to Intel first.

  22. I’ve got an acquaintance whose last name is Lockwood. A spell-check in an email circa 2000 asked me, “Did you mean to say ‘Locoweed?”

    Yes! Thank you spell-check, I did. I just hadn’t realized it before. I’ve been calling him Locoweed ever since.

  23. Wow, these sorts of problems can be easily avoided by not hitting “Replace all” when the notoriously full of bugs Microsoft Word Spellchecker attempts to change your incorrectly spelled word with an entirely incorrect word! Amazing!

  24. I remember a newspaper article that got though with some sort of style-bases auto-correct on, where somebody named Mr. Black was referred to as “Mr. African American” throughout the whole piece.

  25. Is the alteration of sprinter Tyson Gay’s name to “Tyson Homosexual” by a Christian website also a case of the Cupertino Effect? Even if it isn’t, it’s still pretty damn funny/telling.

  26. In grad school, the spell check correction for one professor was “Cheater Lies” which was too excellent and fitting to not use.

  27. According to both Word and Wordperfect my proper name, run through a spell checker, is “Brain Devils”. That’s pretty sweet.

  28. My favorite spell checking correction was circa 1993. If you typed “pentium” MS Word would suggest “penis” as the correct spelling. Honest!

  29. I just remembered that in Japan, due to automated transliteration from roman characters into the complex kanji, younger generations are forgetting how to write more esoteric kanji and have been termed “waparu baka” — “word processor idiots”.

  30. My favorite from years ago was the correction of the city name of Fullerton to fellation. Almost left it that way (ha ha) but thought the better of it.

  31. Hi
    I’ve been telling this story for years…

    When I was a lowly research assistant the academic I worked for wrote a Journal paper with his girlfriend to up her publication output for the year – the paper was supposed to be on co-operative approaches to local government managment. I’m sure you’ve guessed that the paper came out the other end as the “Cupertino approaches”.
    The editor of the journal was a bit of an ass – so he published it as provided.

  32. I’ve been using Word almost since v1 (of the Windows version) and it’s never auto-replaced a single word for me. Granted nowadays I’ll get my docs littered with little red wiggley underscores, but that’s the extent of it.

  33. I’ve had a spelling checker offer to correct “management” to “madmen” – it was tempting to let it do so. But I’ve also had an experience like Flaminica’s post #25, where MS Mail spell-corrected my attached document without asking me, so the “Org Chart” I was forwarding to someone not only got everybody’s name randomly spell-corrected, but was changed to an “Orgy Chart”. Fortunately I was able to send a replacement before the recipient read it…

  34. I would never forget when my brother had the idea to write his own sick slip so he could skip school and forged the signature of my parents.

    Why was he caught?

    Because spell checker misspelled the school’s name wrong to “hit me”

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