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Those Embarrassing, Costly, Terrible Typos

by Rolf Gompertz
Typo n. pl. -os. Informal. A typographical error. Typographical error. A mistake in printing, typing or writing.

That's what it says in the New College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. But it does not begin to tell the story of these mistakes - these embarrassing, costly, terrible typos. I know -- from collecting them, and from personal experience.

I have used these examples as warnings during 30 years of teaching at UCLA Extension, showing that typos are the bane of a writer's existence - whether you are a reporter, public relations practitioner, or author.

Years ago I came across a typo that I still consider to be the funniest and most embarrassing typo in human history, as far as I know.  Many considered it terrible.  It was probably also one of the costliest, if not the costliest.

It occurred in London, in 1632, with the printing of Baker's edition of the Bible, known ever since as the "Wicked Bible."  The Seventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," suddenly appeared in a revised version, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

I suspect that this made a number of people in England very happy.  But their happiness was short-lived.  When the mistake was discovered, Parliament ordered all obtainable editions destroyed, fined the printer 3000 pounds, and forbade all unauthorized printings of the Bible henceforth.

This delicious bit of news came to light in an article by Edward G. de Beaumont, about all kinds of typos. It appeared in the May/June 1980 issue of Editors Workshop.  The author apparently agreed that the "Wicked Bible" typo  took the prize because he titled his article, "Thou Shalt (not) Commit Adultery."

"Proofread, proofread, proofread, again, and again and again," I harangue my students.  "Read your stuff over, two, three times.  Better still, get someone else who can spell and punctuate to proof-read what you have written, also."

I'm sure Pacific Bell wishes somebody had done that - one final time, some years ago. Their Yellow Pages carried an ad for Banner Travel Service, in Sonoma, California.  The firm, which specializes in "exotic" travel, suddenly found itself specializing in "erotic" travel, due to a tiny typo.  This not only resulted in unwelcome ridicule but also a substantial drop in business, as former clients stayed away.  Pacific Bell waived
its $230 monthly fee, but that did not prevent the initiation of a $10 million lawsuit.  I never saw a follow-up story, so I don't know what the outcome was.

But I do know the outcome of something that happened when I was editor of the Torrance Press, a weekly newspaper in the Los Angeles area.  The advertising department was jubilant when it landed a two-page double truck (two-page) ad from the Sealy mattress company.  The ad carried the company's slogan in big, bold, black letters:  "Sleeping on a Sealy, Is Like Sleeping on a Cloud."  But something happened in translation from copy to print.  That Thursday morning, thousands of readers were introduced to a new slogan:  "Sleeping on a Sealy, Is Like Slipping on a Cloud."  The paper, of course, offered to make good.  The following week, readers discovered a revised message: "Sleeping on a Sealy, Is Like Sleeping on a Clod."  That was the end of what we had hoped would be a long-term heavenly relationship.

I was glad, that week, to be in editorial and not in advertising.  Still, I have committed my fair share of typos over the years.  In a book chapter on writing I wrote:

Good Public Relations writing, like good journalistic writing, should be clear, simple, economical.  Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.  Simple rather than complex words.  One word rather than two words.  The precise word instead of a fuselage of words.

Fuselage of words?  Ooops!  The precise word should have been: fusillade of words!  That booboo finally got corrected in a new printing.

Years ago, I learned of an intriguing Chinese cultural custom , I don't know if it still exists.  When a Chinese person wrote a letter, the writer always made one deliberate spelling mistake.  This was meant as a sign of humility, to acknowledge  that the writer did not consider himself a perfect human being.  Other cultures have similar customs, leaving works flawed to show that only God is perfect.

Frankly, I don't have to go out of my way to prove that I am a flawed and imperfect human being.  I have left plenty of unintended typos in my wake, that prove the point.  My most embarrassing one?  It occurred in the author biography at the end of my biblical novel, "Abraham, The Dreamer/An Erotic and Sacred Love Story." In the first line of the biography I left out the "t" in Gompertz.  I misspelled my own name! It also
slipped by me in the proofreading!

About the Author: Rolf Gompertz, who came to America as a refugee from Nazi Germany, is the author of  four current books:"Abraham, The Dreamer - An Erotic and Sacred Love Story,"  "A Jewish Novel about Jesus," "Sparks of Spirit: How to Find Love and Meaning in Your Life 24 Hours a Day," and a contemporary comedy- drama/screenplay, "The Messiah of Midtown Park" (  He lives in North Hollywood, CA.
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