When typos cost a mint


A coin minted in Chile with the word Chile spelt incorrectly cost its engraver his job – so just how expensive can a typo be?

IT MAY BE just a slip of the thumb, but one little typo can land you up to your elbows in hot water. In this age of multimedia communication, there are endless opportunities for typographical errors, and gremlins have never been busier, working their mischief in newspapers, blogs, websites, legal and government documents – and even on freshly minted coins.

Most of the time, typos are a harmless source of amusement, conjuring up bizarre word-pictures. Who could turn down this invitation: “lunch will be gin at 12.15”? Or who wouldn’t want to pay a visit to Cern’s “Large Hardon Collider” purely for scientific research, of course? And who knew that Woodrow Wilson’s wife “grazed on the front lawn of the White House”? Well, she didn’t – some typesetting Bo Peep had simply lost the word “sheep” right after “grazed”.

But sometimes a typo can be an expensive error, costing a forture to rectify; in the worst cases, it can land a newspaper in the libel court; one colleague recalls working for a medical publication and spotting a reference to “John Smith, the rapist”; luckily, it was corrected to “therapist” before publication.

An honest mistake, alas, is no defence in a libel case. “You can plead a typo in your defence, but you might have to concede that the words printed are defamatory,” says David Phelan, a libel expert with Hayes solicitors in Dublin. He cites a recent high-profile murder case where a single letter had been omitted from a newspaper headline, resulting in three witnesses initiating libel proceedings.

Recently, a typo really did cost a mint when 1.5 million Chilean coins were put out with the word “CHILE” misspelt as “CHIIE”. The engraver, Pedro Urzua Lizana, had inadvertently left out the bottom bit from the letter “L” on the 2009 50-peso coin, but the mistake wasn’t noticed until an eagle-eyed coin collector pointed it out.

Lizana was fired in December, but he insists the Chilean mint had known about the error long before that and had tried to cover it up. Well, if you’d put out 1.5 million coins with the name of your own country misspelt, you certainly wouldn’t want it circulating around. No newspaper, organisation or official body is 100 per cent secure from typos – those gremlins will find a way in every time.

Regret The Error, a blog that tracks media mistakes and corrections around the world, has posted its list of top publishing howlers for 2009 (regrettheerror.com). Correction of the Year is from the Washington Post, which had an article that “incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number”. The correction inspired people to tweet their own joke corrections, such as “We regret mistakenly asserting that Coolio had been spending most his life living in a gangsta’s paradise” and “An earlier article incorrectly stated that Chicago was not Frank Sinatra’s kind of town. In fact, it is.”

Staying with the hip-hop theme, in January 2009 The Guardianassured readers that Garrison Keillor’s famous Lake Woebegone tales were not actually called A Prairie Ho Companion.

Probably Ireland’s most expensive such mistake was the 2002 clerical error that gave senior counsel in the Moriarty Tribunal an extra €250 per day. The mistake had been spotted quickly, but never corrected by the Department of Finance, and the barristers were paid an extra €1.1 million over six years.

One 17th-century typo may have had an incalculable cost in moral terms. In the so-called “Wicked Bible” of 1631, the word “not” was omitted from the seventh commandment, resulting in the entreaty, “thou shalt commit adultery”. The printers were fined £300 for inadvertently corrupting public morals.