What the spell-checker knows

What the spell-checker knows: By Tom Krattenmaker. It doesn't just fix your typos -- it sees through to the truth behind names.

Published September 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Want to know the truth behind any name? Spell-check it. I have a theory that spell-check -- that very useful feature of word-processing software that catches misspellings and gives you the correct letter combination -- has a previously unrecognized and almost magical quality: It can reveal who or what any person or institution really is.

As someone who works in higher education, I first noticed this in the way spell-check stumbled over words like "Yale," "Stanford" and "Swarthmore" -- the latter being the name of the Philadelphia-area institution where I work. Before the computer corrected me, I was certain I'd used the correct spellings for these well-known institutions. But spell-check had other ideas, and as I thought about it, I began to see that it wasn't being so dumb -- it had a wisdom all its own.

The true spelling of "Yale"? According to spell-check, it's "Ale." From what I read (and recall from experience), ale really is the meaning of college for many people -- ale, along with lager, stout and its other relatives. "Stanford"? No, insists spell-check. The correct spelling is "Standard." That institution's PR people no doubt want to spin this to mean that their school "sets the standard," but others may see it a different way -- that it's your standard education, a meat-and-potatoes deal. As for the institution where I am employed, spell-check insists it's not "Swarthmore," but "Swarthier." "Swarthy," according to the dictionary, means having a dark complexion -- and as our admission office begins to achieve its goal of a more diverse student body, Swarthmore's complexion is indeed becoming less pale.

Spell-check, of course, can be revealing in embarrassing ways. Philadelphia's Drexel University, with its fine engineers, is probably not thrilled to see the way the computer wants to correct its name -- "Derail." Barnard College students are probably unhappier still: Spell-check wants to change it to "Barnyard."

Excited by my discovery about spell-check, I began to test my theory more broadly. Scanning the news one day, I came across an article about the National Rifle Association and its leader, Charlton Heston. So I punched his name into my computer and spell-checked it. The result? "Charlatan Heston." Aha, I thought. There's something to this.

I tried some of my other conservative favorites. Newt Gingrich is really Newt "Jingoish." Dick Armey is "Armed" (and dangerous?). Rick Santorum, the arch-conservative senator from Pennsylvania, is Rick "Sanitarium." Kenneth Starr is Kenneth "Stare" -- and when I think about his intense scrutiny of the Monica Lewinsky case, it's a spelling correction I completely buy. My favorite correction is "Jesus" Helms. Boy, if that doesn't say it all.

Out of fairness, I spell-checked some big Washington names associated with the other side of the political spectrum. Vernon Jordan is "Vermin" Jordan. And Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman, is Mike "Mockery." Spell-check is clearly non-partisan.

The entertainment industry is also fertile spell-checking ground. Tired of hearing Celine Dion belting out the "Titanic" song with her sledgehammer subtlety, I was smugly satisfied when the computer told me her name is really Celine "Din." And given Warren Beatty's reputation for extreme vanity, I was delighted when spell-check came back with a brilliant suggestion for his name -- Warren "Beauty." How did they program sarcasm into spell-check?

Finally, I used spell-check to try getting to the bottom of Kevin Costner's creative and commercial slump. You see, I greatly admired Costner's work in earlier movies like "Field of Dreams" and "Dances With Wolves," and I've been troubled to see him stumble with more recent projects like "The Postman." Spell-check was instructive, as usual. I came away thinking that the earlier, successful films were flukes, that maybe Costner wasn't meant to be leading man, director and everything else in these movies. After all, as Clint Eastwood suggests in one of those "Dirty Harry" movies, a man has to know his limitations.

Maybe Costner has been too ambitious -- too over-reaching. Maybe, as spell-check advises, Kevin is meant to be a mere "co-star."

By Tom Krattenmaker

Tom Krattenmaker, a Yardley, Pa., resident, is public relations director at Swarthmore College and a freelance writer.

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