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History's Most Heinous Typos

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Typos have been causing embarrassment, angst, tension and torment for as long as we've been writing -- long before the typewriter, and even the printing press. Chaucer, the father of English poetry (or pottery, according to at least one kid's homework), became so enraged by the incompetence of one of his scribes, Adam Pinkhurst, that he actually wrote a poem to name and shame him, chastising him in rhyme for his "negligence and rape." And William Caxton -- the merchant who set up Britain's first printing press in 1476 -- was so bad at spelling that he would ask his own readers to "correcte and amende where they shal fynde faulte."

In terms of the oldest typos, many are from Bibles published in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The most famous example is a 1631 edition known officially as the Barker and Lucas Bible, or more commonly, the "Wicked Bible." This particular "Good Book" managed to leave the word 'not' out of the seventh commandment in the Book of Exodus, thus asserting to devoted Christians: "Thou Shalt Commit Adultery." Other fun misprints of biblical proportions include:

  • "Rejoice and be exceedingly clad!" (rather than "glad," Matthew 5:12, from an 1864 edition printed in York)
  • "Let the Children first be killed" (rather than "filled," Mark 7:27, from a 1795 edition known as the "Murderer's Bible")
  • "We know that you ate the Holy one of God," (rather than that you "are" the Holy one of God, John 6, 68-9).

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History's most powerful and prestigious have consistently failed to escape the humiliation of the humble typo:

  • During the Wilson presidency, The Washington Post was credited with the "most famous newspaper typo" in D.C. history; it intended to report that President Wilson had been "entertaining" his future wife, Mrs. Galt, but instead wrote that he had been "entering" her.
  • The London Times, describing Queen Victoria traversing the Menai Bridge, announced in one headline, "THE QUEEN HERSELF PISSED GRACIOUSLY OVER THE MAGNIFICENT EDIFICE."
  • A recent US Tweet was described by one reporter as "the worst typo in the history of international relations" when it referred to the organization's hopes of one day reaching a "1-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

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Perhaps the worst typos are the most expensive:

  • In 2012, a JP Morgan employee tried, and failed, to sue his employer after a hugely tempting salary of 24 million rand -- about 3 million dollars -- lured him from the US to South Africa; on arriving, he discovered that the decimal place had been put in the wrong position (it should have been 240,000 rand, a mere hundredth of what he thought he was getting).
  • In 1962, a typo by a NASA programmer resulted in Mariner 1 being sent into the ocean rather than to its intended location, Venus. The cause was a missing hyphen.

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Ultimately, the worst (and sometimes, it has to be said, the funniest) typos are the most offensive:

  • The famous Sesame Street example -- my personal favorite of the 350-or-so I collected in the book -- would certainly qualify (see above).
  • So too the legendary Pasta Bible typo that replaced "Freshly ground black pepper" with 'Freshly ground black people'.

Drummond Moir is the author of Just My Typo: From "Sinning with the Choir" to "the Untied States" [Three Rivers Press, $11.99].