Why the typo thing is really more complicated than I make it sound

I just wrote the following to Project Gutenberg:

I just encountered an interesting possible problem in your edition of Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen.

In chapter 9, the following line appears:

so, with sniffles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency

However, in my Signet Classic printed edition, the phrase is "smiles of most exquisite misery".

I assumed at first that there had been a character-recognition error when scanning the book. But when I searched online for the phrase ["exquisite misery"], I discovered that the word "sniffles" appears in that sentence in quite a few online editions, and in one or two printed editions.

However, the majority of printed editions (especially the older ones) say "smiles"; see Google Book Search results for details. Note that editions from 1882, 1903, and 1915 all say "smiles", while a 2004 edition says "sniffles".

Also note that "smiles" fits the sentence better--"smiles of exquisite misery" matches the seemingly paradoxical structure of the subsequent phrase, "the laughing eye of utter despondency".

My printed Signet Classic edition says that its text "is based on the first edition, published by John Murray, London, in 1818."

So ... it's not inconceivable that the word really is supposed to be "sniffles." But I strongly suspect it's supposed to be "smiles."

Could you take a look, and, if you feel it's warranted, make the correction?

So, yeah, I do know that it's not always clear whether a given item is really an error or not. And there are dozens of online copies of this book that say "sniffles" (I suspect many of them got their text from Gutenberg, but none of them say so--the Gutenberg terms of service are such that, last I checked, in some contexts you're not allowed to say you got the text from them), so even if I'm right, fixing the mistake webwide would be a pretty big undertaking at this point.

Added later: I just sent them a followup note.

I've discovered further evidence:

I just looked in every Gutenberg etext of every Jane Austen novel. Unless I made a mistake, the words "sniffle" and "sniffles" don't appear anywhere else in any of her books. In fact, the word "sniff" also doesn't appear anywhere in any of her books.

Whereas the word "smiles" appears at least twice in every one of her books. [I forgot to add: and sometimes more like 10 or 15 times.]

So although the word "sniffle" did appear in English as early as the 1630s, it doesn't appear to have been part of Austen's writing vocabulary.

Thus, I'm pretty sure that the word "sniffles" in the etext of Northanger Abbey ought to say "smiles".

(See what I mean about spending too much time and energy on this stuff? But this is Austen! Someone might write a scholarly paper about her use of the word "sniffles"!)

6 Responses to “Why the typo thing is really more complicated than I make it sound”

  1. Wayman

    (See what I mean about spending too much time and energy on this stuff? But this is Austen! Someone might write a scholarly paper about her use of the word “sniffles”!)

    Albeit a very, very short scholarly paper, if you’re correct that she never actually used the word “sniffles” *grin*

  2. Zed

    I, for one, applaud your heroic efforts for correctness.

  3. Jed

    Wayman: Oh, sorry for my phrasing there–what I meant was that if it remained uncorrected, then someone might use the Gutenberg version as evidence that Austen had in fact used the word “sniffles,” and might base a paper on that idea.

    Relatedly, I just discovered that The Free Dictionary uses this Austen line as one of its “References in classic literature” to the word “sniffles.”

    Fortunately, my journal entry here is now the third Google search result for [Austen sniffles] (is that anything like Telemachus Sneezed?), so any researcher who’s looking for info about Austen’s use of the word will doubtless come across this entry and be properly warned.

    Zed: Thanks!

  4. Fred

    If you want to fix the issue more permanently, you could contact an Austen scholar via email. I think that would do the best job of ensuring that future editions don’t have this typo. Academics are even more interested in such things than you are 🙂

  5. Jed

    Fred: Good idea, but unfortunately finding contact info for Austen scholars isn’t as easy as I would have expected. I Googled [“Austen scholar”] and came up with a couple of likely names, but none of them seem to have websites or contact info available online. I suppose I could contact the Jane Austen Society of North America or other such organization, but that seems like it wouldn’t have quite the same impact or likelihood of response to such a tiny detail.

    So, if any Austen scholars (or, as one such calls herself, “Austenian scholars”) happen across this page, lemme know if you can shed any light on the “sniffles” issue. I would be particularly interested in finding out where, when, and why the divergence occurred. I imagine anyone with access to a sufficiently large collection of editions of Northanger Abbey could find out the where and when pretty easily, but I don’t care quite enough about this issue to try to pursue it much further on my own.

  6. Laura Carroll

    It’s definitely ‘smiles’. No question. Books reprinted this often (and so carelessly, sometimes) acquire all kinds of strange typos in the course of their lives. This one has no textual authority.


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