Read THE PERVERSITIES OF TYPE of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

That searching analyst of the soul, Edgar Allan Poe, found among the springs of human nature the quality of perverseness, the disposition to do wrong because it is wrong; in reality, however, Poe’s Imp of the Perverse is active far beyond the boundaries of the human soul; his disturbances pervade the whole world, and nowhere are they more noticeable than in the printing office. This is so because elsewhere, when things fall out contrary to rule, the result may often be neutral or even advantageous; but in the printing office all deviations, or all but a minute fraction, are wrong. They are also conspicuous, for, though the standard is nothing less than perfection, the ordinary human eye is able to apply the standard. These tricks of the malicious imp are commonly called “misprints,” “printer’s errors,” “errors of the press,” or, more impartially, “errata” or “corrigenda.” In the first three names there is a tinge of unfairness, because the printer is by no means responsible for all the mistakes that appear in type. The author is usually partly to blame and may be chiefly; yet when he suffers a lapse of memory or knowledge, he usually passes it off as a “printer’s error.” Sometimes the author’s handwriting may mislead the printer, but when so good a biblical scholar as Mr. Gladstone wrote of Daniel in the fiery furnace, there was no possibility that the single name could have stood in his manuscript for the names of the three men whose trial is mentioned in the book of Daniel. Even here the submission of proof fixes the final responsibility on the author. But, quite apart from the responsibility for them, the mistakes embalmed in type are among the most interesting of all literary curiosities.

Misprints to use the handiest term range in importance from the innocent and obvious, like a turned a, and the innocent and obvious only to the expert, like a turned s, to a turned n, which may be mistaken for a u, or the change or omission of a punctuation mark, which may involve claims to thousands of dollars. Even the separation of one word into two may reverse the meaning of the sentence, yet not betray itself by any oddity of phrase, as when the atheist who had asserted that “God is nowhere” found himself in print standing sponsor for the statement that “God is now here.” The same trick of the types was played on an American political writer in his own paper regarding his pet reform, which he meant to assert was “nowhere in existence.” The earliest printed books were intended to be undistinguishable from manuscripts, but occasionally a turned letter betrayed them absolutely. In the same way the modern newspaper now and then introduces an unintentional advertisement of the linotype by presenting to its readers a line upside down. Another trick is the mixing of two paragraphs, which sometimes occurs even in books. The most famous instance of this blunder is probably that which happened in the English “Men of the Time” for 1856, and which led to a serious lawsuit against the publishers. The printer had mixed the biographies of the Bishop of Oxford and Robert Owen the Socialist in such a way that Bishop Wilberforce was called “a sceptic as it regards religious revelation.” The mistake occurred in locking up the forms. Doubtless both biographies had been approved by their subjects, but apparently no proof was read after the fatal telescoping of the two articles.

The last instance is an example of the patient waiting as much as the ingenuity of the Imp of the Perverse, but in pure ingenuity he is without a rival in mere human inventiveness. It certainly was a resourceful Frenchman who translated “hit or miss” as “frappe mademoiselle,” and it was inspired ignorance on the part of a student assistant in a college library who listed “Sur l’Administration de M. Necker, par Lui Meme” under “Meme, Lui,” as if it were the name of the author of the book instead of being the French for “himself.” But the Imp of the Perverse aims higher than this. He did not hesitate in an edition of the Bible published in London in 1631 to leave the not out of the one commandment from which its absence would be the most noticeable. This was much worse than leaving out the whole commandment, for it transformed a moral prohibition into an immoral command. The printer in this case was fined three hundred pounds, or five hundred dollars for each letter omitted. It is curious that the same omission was made in an edition of the Bible printed at Halle. A Vermont paper, in an obituary notice of a man who had originally come from Hull, Mass., was made by the types to state that “the body was taken to Hell, where the rest of the family are buried.” In the first English Bible printed in Ireland, “Sin no more” appears as “Sin on more.” It was, however, a deliberate joke of some Oxford students which changed the wording in the marriage service from “live” to “like,” so that a couple married out of this book are required to live together only so long as they “both shall like.” An orator who spoke of “our grand mother church” was made to say “our grandmother church.” The public of Brown University was recently greatly amused by a local misprint. The president of the university is required by its ancient charter to be an “antipaedobaptist”; the types reproduced the word as “antipseudobaptist,” a word which would be a very good Greek rendering of “hardshell.” An express train at full speed having struck a cow, the report was made to say that it “cut her into calves.” Sixty years ago the “London Globe” made the Registrar General say that the city was suffering from a high rate of morality. The ingenuity of our readers will supply the missing letter, as it also will the the true reading of the following passage which appeared in an English newspaper: “Sir Robert Peel has been out with a party of fiends shooting peasants.” It was an easy but astonishing blunder made in German, in the substitution of “Maedchen” (girls) for “Maechten” (powers), according to which Bismarck was asserted to be “trying to keep up honest and straightforward relations with all the girls.”

The Imp of the Perverse, when he descends upon the printing office, sometimes becomes the Imp of the Perverted. Here his achievements will not bear reproducing. Suffice it to say that in point of indecency he displays the same superhuman ingenuity as in his more innocent pranks. His indecencies are all, indeed, in print, but fortunately scattered, and it would be a groveling nature that should seek to collect them; yet the absence of this chapter from the world’s book of humor means the omission of a comic strain that neither Aristophanes nor Rabelais has surpassed. Even as I write, a newspaper misprint assures me that typesetting machines are no protection against the Imp of the Perverted. Perhaps we may be pardoned the reproduction of one of the mildest of these naughtinesses. A French woman novelist had written: “To know truly what love is, we must go out of ourselves” (sortir de soi). The addition of a single letter transformed this eminently respectable sentiment into the feline confession: “To know truly what love is, we must go out nights” (sortir de soir).

Sometimes the Blunder Sprite deliberately pits himself against author, proof reader, and all their allies. The books printed by Aldus are famous for their correctness, yet a few errors crept into them, so much to the disgust of the great printer that he said he would gladly have given a gold crown for each one to be rid of them. The famous Oxford University Press is said to have posted up the first sheet of one of its Bibles, with the offer of a guinea for every misprint that could be found in it. None was found until the book was printed. James Lenox, the American collector, prided himself on the correctness of his reprint of the autograph manuscript of “Washington’s Farewell Address,” which he had acquired. On showing the book to Henry Stevens, the bookseller, the latter, glancing at a page, inquired, “Why pap_a_r instead of pap_e_r?” Mr. Lenox was overwhelmed with mortification; but Stevens sent for a skillful bookbinder, who removed the objectionable a and with a camel’s hair pencil substituted an e for it, so that the demon was conquered after all, but only through great trouble. How would it seem possible to reissue a printed book, copy it exactly, and yet make an atrocious blunder? The Type Spirit is equal to even this feat. The book was a mathematical one, full of formulae. It was not reproduced page for page, so it was perfectly easy for a signature mark to get printed and appear in the middle of a page mixed up with an equation, to the confusion of American mathematical scholarship. More tragic were the misprints in a work by the Italian poet, Guidi, which are said to have hastened his death. In an interesting volume by Henry B. Wheatley on “Literary Blunders,” the Tricksy Puck of the Press has revenged himself on the author for his attacks by smuggling in a number of misprints, among them one that he must have inspired in the mind of the author, the spelling “Bride of Lammermuir,” which has no warrant in Scott’s novel itself. In the same book is a reference to Shakespeare that diligent search fails to verify. Thus no knowledge or skill avails against the Kobold of the Case. The most baffling device of the imp is to cause a new error in the process of correcting an old one. This residuary misprint is one against which there is no complete protection. When General Pillow returned from Mexico he was hailed by a Southern editor as a “battle-scarred veteran.” The next day the veteran called upon him to demand an apology for the epithet actually printed, “battle-scared.” What was the horror of the editor, on the following day, to see the expression reappear in his apology as “bottle-scarred”!

Occasionally, however, the mischief maker takes a notion to improve the copy set before him. The world will never know how often this has happened, for authors are just as willing to take credit for excellencies not their own as to lay on the printer the blame for their own oversights. In one of Artemus Ward’s articles he had spoken of a starving prisoner as appealing for something to eat. The proof rendered it something to read. The humorist accepted the substitution as an additional absurdity. The French poet, Malherbe, once welcomed a misprint as an improvement on what he had written. There can be no doubt that, had there been no misprints in Shakespeare’s quartos and folios, half the occupation of Shakespeare scholarship would have been lacking. Sometimes the original manuscript turns up unfortunately not in Shakespeare’s case to confute some or all of the ingenious editors. A learned professor changed the word “unbodied” in Shelley’s “Skylark” to “embodied,” and some critics approved the change; but the poet’s manuscript in the Harvard University Library makes the former reading clear beyond question. One might say that in these cases the Imp of the Perverse plants himself like a fatal microbe in the brain of the unfortunate editor. When that brilliant work, “The Principles of Success in Literature,” by George Henry Lewes, appeared in the “Fortnightly Review,” the expression “tilt stones from a cart” (used to describe careless writing) was printed with l as the first letter. When the chapters were reissued in America, the proofreader, warned by the presence of numerous other gross misprints, naturally corrected the meaningless “lilt” to the obvious and natural “tilt.” This change at first escaped the attention of the American editor, who in the second edition insisted on restoring the original misprint and even defended his misjudgment in a note. It is worth adding that the Oxford English Dictionary takes the misprint as too obvious for comment and quotes the passage under “tilt.”

The most daring feat of the typographic Angel of the Odd to adopt another of Poe’s expressions is the creation of what Professor Skeat called “ghost words,” that is, words that seem to exist but do not. A misprint in Scott’s “Monastery” of “morse” for “nurse” was accepted without question by readers and gravely explained by scholars. Some of these words, of which there are scores, are due to the misreading of crabbed manuscripts, but not a few have originated in the printing office. It must be remembered that they make their way into the dictionaries. For another instance let the reader open Worcester’s Dictionary to the word phantomnation. He will see it defined as “illusion” and referred to Pope. In Webster’s Dictionary, however, he will learn its true character, as a ghost word formed by running together the two words phantom nation.

The printing of poetry involves all the possible mistakes liable to prose and, owing to the form of poetry, some new ones. Thus in Pickering’s Aldine edition of Milton, two words of one line in “Samson Agonistes” are dropped down into the next, making the two lines of uneven length and very much hurting the emphasis. The three-volume reprint of this edition dutifully copies the misprint. In the Standard edition of Dr. Holmes’s “Works” printed at the Riverside Press, in the unusual case of a poem in stanzas being broken up into a dialogue, the end of one speech, carried over to the following page, has been assigned to the next speaker, thus spoiling both the sense and the metre. The most extraordinary instance that has ever come under my eye occurs in a special edition of John Hay’s “Poems,” issued as a college prize volume and very elegantly printed at a well-known press. One poem has disappeared entirely except a single stanza, which has been attached to another poem with which it has no connection, not even agreeing with it in metre.

The list of errata, the printer’s public confession of fault, is rather rare in modern books, but this is due as much to the indifference of the public as to better proofreading. When Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia” took the reading world by storm, a New York reprint was issued, which we commend to anyone looking for classical examples of misprinted books. It averages perhaps a gross misprint to every page. Possibly extreme haste to beat the Boston edition in the market may have suggested dispensing with the proof reader. Of course a publisher who could so betray his customers would never offer them even the partial amends of a list of errata. Sometimes the errors are picked up while the book is still in press, and in that case the list of errata can be printed as an extension of the text; sometimes the best that can be done is to print it on a separate slip or sheet and either insert it in the book or supply it to purchasers. Both these things happened in the case of that early American book, Mather’s “Magnalia.” The loose list of errata was printed on the two inner pages of one fold the size of the book. In the two hundred years that have elapsed, most of these folded sheets have been lost, with the financial result that a copy of the book with them will bring twice as much as one without them, these two leaves weighing as much in the scales of commerce as the other four hundred. Sometimes a misprint establishes the priority of a copy, the error having been silently corrected while the sheets were going through the press, and thus adds to its value in the eyes of the collector. The extent of these ancient lists of errata staggers belief. Cardinal Bellarmin was obliged to issue an octavo volume of eighty-eight pages to correct the misprints in his published works, and there is on record a still huger list of errata, extending to one hundred and eleven quarto pages.

But we must not suppose that misprints began with the invention of printing. The name did, but not the thing named. In earlier times it was the copyist who made the mistakes and bore the blame. It is easy to see how in Greece and Rome, when one reader read aloud a book which perhaps a hundred copyists reproduced, a great number of errors might creep into the copies, and how many of these would result from confusion in hearing. Every copy was then an edition by itself and a possible source of error, calling therefore for its own proofreading. It is accordingly no wonder that the straightening out of classic texts is still going on. Had Chaucer, who wrote over a hundred years before printing was introduced into England, been able to read once for all the proof of his poems, he would not have had to write that feeling address to his copyist, or scrivener, with which we may fitly take leave of our subject.

Adam scryveyne, if ever it thee byfalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten nuwe,
Under thy long lokkes thowe most have the scalle,
But affter my makyng thowe wryte more truwe;
So offt a daye I mot thy werk renuwe,
It to corect, and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy necglygence and rape.