Words & Stuff

cc: Rat Dreams

(19 January 1998)

Few modern writers would dream of submitting a manuscript without running it through a spellchecker first. Alas, in olden days, many famous writers had no access to computers, and were thus forced to submit manuscripts rife with typos and idiosyncratic spellings. Publishers were often lax in those days and failed to notice the blatant spelling errors. It boggles the mind that no proofreader caught the numerous errors, for instance, in the very first line of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote...

(And some modern editions of Chaucer compound the problem by introducing further errors, such as adding an 'e' to the end of the above spelling of "April"!) In many cases it's obvious what word Chaucer meant to write, but in other cases the poor spelling combines with cryptic grammar to make it uncertain what he meant. I've spellchecked the first (ridiculously long) sentence of the Canterbury Tales; as most critical editions do, I asked two different experts (spellcheckers in Microsoft Word 4.0 and Adobe FrameMaker 5.1), and where they differ I've chosen whichever suggestion seemed to make the most sense. I've also edited the punctuation a bit, for clarity. Now if only there were a good grammar checker we could run this through... The story so far seems to be about a pale-faced drunk guy who hems hats, and likes to sing, which annoys his friend Al. The hatter is married to a woman named Enid, and together they complain about England to the mysterious figure known only as the Saunterer... Look, why don't I just show it to you and let you figure it out for yourself.

Wan, that April, with his shores sooth,
The garotte of March, hat perched to the rote,
And bathed every venue in swish liquor
Of which virtue engendered is the flour;
Wan zephyrs seek, with his sweet breath,
Inspired hat in every halt, and teeth
The tender crepes, and the young sane
Hat in the Ram his half chores ironed,
And male fellows make melody,
That spleen Al the night with open ye
(So practice hem-nature in air cargoes),
Thine longer folk to soon on pilgrimages,
And polymers for to semen strange strands,
To ferny hallways, clothe in condor lodes;
And specially from every shire's Enid,
Of England to Saunterer they whined,
The holly, blissful martin, for to seek,
That hem hat -- whole, wan -- that they were seek.

Compared to the original, this is a model of clarity.

[I should note that there was an alternative suggestion for line 14 above:

To ferny hallways, Keith in Sondra Landes.

I discarded it as unlikely (most scholars doubt that Chaucer even knew Keith), but what little academic honesty remains to me compels me to admit the possibility.]

Spelling checkers can improve comprehensibility in other cases, too. For instance, it's widely alleged that if you play the works of Shakespeare backwards you can hear Satanic messages, or the voice of Roger Bacon, or maybe the phrase "Will is dead." But when I tried a certain famous speech backwards, I got nonsense, ending up with:

.noitseuq eht si taht, eb ot ton ro eb oT

I figured a spellchecker might help me understand the hidden message. (The guy was no great shakes as a speller; on his birth certificate he got his own first name wrong, spelling it "Guillaume.") Check out the result:

Escape! Shun avid thumb;
Lick latrine site. Foe defiles ova we knew.
Emote, yam-smeared tar! Hated of peels, taut-knit roof,
Burr -- eat! Serrate a naked hot denature peels, hot
Peels, hot-eyed hot dish be to outlived
Incommunicado. A, sit. Hot rye! Si, shelf-taut
Socks lurking. Gunshot! Eat, Dan! Echo-tree, eat!
Done we as to peels; a, by Dan, from on.
Peels to aid hot meat done; misapply by Dan.
Salubrity of -- as a disengage -- smear. Edit hot rho!
Interwove sugarcoat of skiwear. Dan signals eat:
Refuse hot denim! Eat knit ribbon. Sit, retire,
Moisten, eat. Si, taut. Be hot, ton rho, be hot!

The sense remains a little obscure, but I think I get the general idea. He was mad at somebody named Dan. My guess is that Dan dropped some orange peels into the hotdish that Mrs. Shakespeare was making for Billy-boy's dinner; Shakespeare wants to force Dan to eat clothing as penance.

After this enlightening experience, I wondered what might happen if I repeated the process, reversing the hidden message above and spellchecking again:

Oh, be -- oh, not -- oh, be -- that is, take nudism!
Writer, it's knobbier. Think thee mined? Oh, suffer
Thai slangs, mad wreaks of autocrats overwritten!
Oh, thou tide, reams diagnosed a shad of tribalism,
And by plasma endow team! Thou did hot sleep --
No moor mad by a sleep, hot shad we endow!
Take heart once, mad Thai, tossing inaugural socks;
That flesh is eye. Thou-- This-- A occasion, mocking
Deviltry to be said. Oh, eye! Oh, sleep--
Oh, sleep erupted, oh dean. A, etchers, take rub,
For think tutu. Sleep of detach; rat dreams may atom.
Weak, we ago sulfide of ethics; inertly, cozily.
Bunt, diva; nosh peaches!

Well, the way I figure, it makes about as much sense as the original.

Thanks to Mykle Hansen and Arthur Evans for the reverse-spellchecking concept; if I hadn't run out of space I would have included some of their early efforts in the genre. Some other time.

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>