Intelligent Errors Are Totally Book

Pardon this brief interruption of contest fever (see three previous entries) but …

Here’s a nice observation written by Nicole Tourtelot, who toils away here in the Freakonomics office (maintaining this Web site, fulfilling bookplate requests, etc.):

Dubner posted recently about intentionally misspelled domain names, such as, that aim to grab clumsy typists and/or poor spellers. The idea that intentionally misspelling the name of one’s own company could lead to increased market share reminded me of the QWERTY keyboard story-another case of intelligent error, although in this story, the goal was inefficiency. Mitchell M. Waldrop, a former senior writer at Science magazine, tells it nicely in his book, Complexity:

“An engineer named Christopher Scholes designed the QWERTY layout in 1873 specifically to slow typists down; the typewriting machines of the day tended to jam if the typist went too fast. But then the Remington Sewing Machine Company mass-produced a typewriter using the QWERTY keyboard, which meant that lots of typists began to learn the system, which meant that other typewriter companies began to offer the QWERTY keyboard, which meant that still more typists began to learn it, et cetera, et cetera.”

In that same vein, someone sent me this post about T9 predictive-text messaging. Because people spend so much time texting – particularly young people – and predictive text is so commonplace, T9 text errors have spawned some delightfully random developments in slang. Here’s an explanation of T9 technology for the Luddites, but in brief, the phone guesses what you’re trying to type.

According to the post, “book” is the new way to say “cool.” With some T9 dictionaries, both words come up as suggestions for 2-6-6-5, with “book” popping up first. After a few careless messages along the lines of “that movie was totally book,” new street lingo was born.

I asked my younger sister if she’d heard of this predictive-text slang phenomenon and she immediately supplied her own example. Among her hipper-than-thou (hipper-than-me) art-school crowd in San Francisco, “jazz” is apparently the new “lame,” for a few reasons: The first is that some predictive-text programs guess “jazz” when you try to type in “lame” (they’re both spelled starting 5-2). Secondly, it’s a classic evolution in the hipsters’ flip-the-script lexicon: using a word to connote its exact opposite. Granted, that last point is debatable — depending on your opinion of jazz.


I had thought that the QWERTY layout was the most efficient on early machines due to now-obscure technical reasons. It was not designed as a means of deliberately slowing down typists, once again according to what I've read.

Tremendous Upside

If typing too fast resulted in continual jamming, then slowing down typists would actually be more efficient in the long run...

I don't know that this is true, just pointing out that efficiency and slowing down typists aren't necessarily mutually exclusive...


The qwerty story I was told in economics class was that the jamming occured when keys near each other on the board were typed in quick succession. Thus common letter pairs were installed on opposite sides of the keyboard to prevent the jam.

At the end of the day, it seems economists and jounalists both love a good urban legend from time to time.


As I have understood it, it wasn't designed to slow down typists, but to make sure that the hammers for consecutive letters would as often as possible come from different parts of the assembly; the risk of jamming is the greatest when a couple of hammers close to each other try to move at nearly the same time.

And as subsequent experiments with other layouts have shown the QWERTY layout is pretty good; even when you make a layout heavily optimized for one particular language corpus you do not gain more than ten to twenty percent (which is tantamount to a rounding error in the field of user interface design).


I have heard/read the slow-down-the-typist story as the origin of the QWERTY keyboard several times. I've heard that the original keys were either in alphabetical order or grouped with the most commonly-used letters in the easiest-to-hit spots.

Aside from the stockpickr type of misspelling, there are others who draw users to their sites via typos. One example is the Christian site one reaches by accidentally typing "blogpot" instead of "blogspot" for any Blogger url.




Duck, and Ducking is what comes up in place of the curses via t9.


There is a freakonomic office? [:0] BOOk!
DO u have any vacancy? [:p]


Speaking of bogus web site names, I assume that everyone knows what you find if you are trying to go to but accidently use .com as the suffix. Don't use your work computer for to experiment on this one.


trees...street. The intention of the Qwerty keyboard is to make you spend most of your time typing with your left hand, as most people are slower with their off hand. On the left, you have e,t,a (the three leaders), plus s and r. There are just enough common letters on the right(l,n,o,i) to keep you alternating, which also slowed you down at low to moderate skill. As someone mentions, forcing alternation also does help to avoid jams, by not having nearby keys striking simultaneously. (Not much you can do to slow down Mavis Beacon.)

The original typewriters didn't have a ten-key pad,either. The numbers are famously difficult to use quickly in data entry on a qwerty keyboard.

Your most dextrous finger is the index finger, so obviously, your right index finger is on the so useful 'j' - everything else requires a reach.

I know this, because I'm a flaw in the system - a lefty. To my knowledge, this is the only widely used tool explicitly designed to be left-handed in its standard form.



Speaking of bogus web site names, I assume that everyone knows what you find if you are trying to go to but accidently use .com as the suffix. Don't use your work computer for to experiment on this one.

Some might say that is the real obscenity :)


I think this misses the point about the "Stockpickr" name. The owners are emulating the naming of, one of the earliest Web 2.0 sites. They are trying to say that is the Web 2.0 site for picking stocks.


Cornell Engineering regularly tells the students that redefining the problem is often the simplest solution.

The Qwerty keyboard is used as one of the examples. Sure we could spend millions of dollars to make the typewriter not jam, but in the meanwhile just make the keyboard so that it slows down the typist. Nevermind the future economic cost.

In fact the Y2K histeria was all caused by programmers saving 2 bytes of memory by not coding the first 2 digits of the year. This was considered a great memory saving redefinition.


Do today's engineers consider future cost?


I found that Nokia phones type the word "dual" in place of a certain well-known curse word. Another funny one is that "pervert" comes up as "request."


The story behind Flickr is that domain parkers had already taken ""


Interesting point about the QWERTY keyboard - and I wonder how many marketing tricks have relied on QWERTY based errors, and how they do versus natural language errors.

I do wonder about intentionally misspelling in other languages, for example how intentionally misspelled English floats in Japan, given that intentionally 'misspelled' Japanese only shows ignorance...


Stan Liebowits and Stephen Margolis put the torch to the QWERTY myth over ten years ago.

But some lies, it seems, are too good to die. They rise, phoenix-like, again and again.


I read your Liebowits and Margolis article avidly. But to me the QWERTY myth is not that it is slower than DVORAK or any other layout. Maybe the myth has grown into that over the years but to me the myth is slightly tweaked in another direction.

Mostly what people said on this thread is that it was designed to slow typists down enough so that early typewriters would not jam. Is that also a myth?

The above article doesn't adress that, does it?


two subjects kept me from "straight As" in high school
gym and keyboarding
humility is a good thing....


It floors me that that people in Beijing can text message in Chinese from their limited 12-key (and maybe cursor control) cell phone. And they type it fast. I'm sure they have their own slang, possibly from errors as well.