Big Brother is spell-checking you

A funny thing happened on the way to an article the other day. I was writing an innocuous story -- a feature about flying disc golf, no less -- and happened to mention Wal-Mart in a sentence describing the horror of suburban big-box blight. Except, in my haste, I uncouthly typed "Walmart" by mistake. Thankfully, I was saved from sure embarrassment by the indispensable spell-checking function of my word-processing program, Microsoft Word. It knew "Walmart" should in fact be "Wal-Mart" and clinically, confidently, told me so.

Whew, I thought. Nearly had to flip open a phone book to make sure my copy was correct. But then I started to contemplate the ramifications of a proper corporate name being considered proper usage in what must be one of the world's most popular computer programs. I mean, they're overlooking the most important rule of Scrabble: No proper names! If Wal-Mart is now part of our official electronic lexicon, I wondered, then how many of its brand-name cousins have joined it?

So I conducted a little experiment. Type "cocacola" in Microsoft Word and you're informed that "Coca-Cola" is the only recommended replacement. Lower-case "coke," however, is OK; I suppose the word is so familiar to us that we needn't bother capitalizing it anymore. Lower-case "nike," on the other hand, is wrong. It should be "Nike," I'm told, or a slew of similar-sounding words, from "Nikka" to "nice" to "pike." Likewise, "pepsi" should be "Pepsi." But buried amongst the list of amusing suggestions, like "peeps" and "papoose," we're also told that the corporate moniker "PepsiCo" is an acceptable word.

Surveying the various brand names visible on items in my office, I decided to do some willy-nilly spell-checking. "Timexx," I discovered, is incorrect, but "Timex" is fine. "Toshiba," the company that makes the computer on which this rant is being composed, is in there, too. My basketballs aren't so fortunate. "Spalding" garners the suggested spelling "Spading," and though "Wilsonx" does net me "Wilson," that's likely because Wilson is also a popular name for people.

Leaving the confines of one room, I threw in a few more terms. "Prozac" is in the spell-check dictionary, as are "Sony," "Hitachi," "Mitsubishi" and "Honda." (So are "Chrysler" and "globalization," by the way.) Other finds: "Samsung" apparently doesn't measure up to its electronics-company brethren, nor does "JVC," but "IBM" is fine.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Relax with a "Gatorade" -- and with Word's help you'll never misspell this tasty, thirst-quenching beverage again.

Now this is where things get complicated, because International CorrectSpell by the INSO Corp. -- the standard spell-checker for Microsoft Word -- includes thousands of proper names. Countries, cities, people ... they're all in there. We've been using these words for centuries. Brand names, by comparison, are a relatively recent phenomenon. Yet they've managed to quickly find their way into what's arguably the framework for much of the communicating western society does today. What gives?

To get to the bottom of this, I put in a call to the INSO Corp. Apparently they recently changed their name to EBT. (In an unexpected display of modesty, neither INSO nor EBT is in the spell-checker lexicon.) And EBT, unfortunately, is currently in the processing of liquidating.

"Everyone's been terminated," the woman who answered the phone told me before giving me the number for Chicago-based IntraNet Solutions, which purchased much of EBT's software before it went under. Calls to that com-pany's public-relations staff didn't conjure up a willing interviewee, so I went to the top and hooked up with Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas.

"We don't view ourselves as dictionary makers or experts," he tells me over the phone from Seattle, "so we work with companies that are and license content from them. We find experts and work with them. We try to find the best people to supply our content." Microsoft staff do oversee initiatives like spell-checker development, Thomas says, to find the right "balance" of words and ensure that decisions are intelligent, smart and made in a responsible manner.

"I'm sure at some point there's a subjective line that says 'Wal-Mart is a big enough institution and is written about enough,'" he responds when asked specifically about the inclusions of corporate names in spell-checkers for Word (which, he confirms, is indeed the most popular word-processing program in the world). "It's a decision we make. A tool like spell-checking is something we've created with help from customers, from identifying their needs. They're designed to help people be more efficient, to be more productive, so they don't have to stop working."

As for the ramifications of enshrining words like Wal-Mart in our lexicon, Thomas says, "I don't think we're looking at cultural annihilation. It's not going to overrun western civilization."

John Considine, an English professor who focuses on the cultural history of dictionaries, doesn't think we're heading toward cultural annihilation either. But Considine, an Oxford English Dictionary consultant and former OED contributing editor, isn't entirely comfortable with the Wal-Martization of our language. "I try to avoid describing any language phenomenon as troubling or sinister," he says, "but I certainly do wonder if this is at least potentially quite manipulative."

Historically, according to Considine, lexicographers have run into difficulties when attempting to include proper terms in dictionaries. The company that makes (and copyrighted) Velcro, for instance, didn't want its product in the dictionary; that would move them one step closer to losing their trademark on the product. But names of companies are different. "The fact that such words are now appearing in spell-checkers is very interesting and surprising," says Considine. "It's almost like product placement, isn't it? What I'd never thought of is, of course, a spell-checker is a kind of dictionary. I've always thought of dictionaries having print versions. I wonder if a spell-checker can be a more irresponsible kind of dictionary."

As for Microsoft spokesperson Mark Thomas's logic that spell-checkers are designed to help people write more efficiently (so they don't have to stop and look up the spelling of words), Considine says, "If somebody wanted to type without being interrupted, then they should turn the spell-checker off. With the spell-checker, you're a more passive language user."

It's at this point that I bounce a sci-fi scenario off Considine that one day, in the not-too-distant future, word processing programs might replace the word "cola" with "Coke," suggest "Evian" instead of "water" or recommend you type "Macintosh," not "computer." Considine pauses. I await his academic admonishment. "It's certainly not implausible science fiction," he says. "Spell-checkers can exert a lot of control over the usage of the person typing on the computer."

Now excuse me. Time to spell-check this article. Let's see how much of it survives.


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