Hannah Montana once said, “Everybody makes mistakes”. And that is especially true when it comes to typographical errors. Everyone can think of one instance where autocorrect changed something it wasn’t supposed to. But different types of typos can have hugely varying consequences—there’s a big difference between spelling your coworker’s name wrong in an email and giving your main character two completely different names. And what’s more is that typos in books are not only widely read but live on in print for centuries. Come explore some of the funniest mistakes that can never be undone.
Starting the list off strong with a hilarious mistake in a book people would assume had none. The Bible notoriously goes through multiple proofreads to make sure that everything is in order. They wouldn’t want to mistakenly make people think that a sin like, say, adultery is condoned by the Ten Commandments, right? Well, that’s exactly what happened in a 1631 edition of the King James Bible, coined by history as “the Wicked Bible”. The edition, printed by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, listed the seventh Commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Of course, Barker and Lucas subsequently lost their printing licenses. Scandalized, devout readers burned their copies; only around 10 copies with the typo remain intact today.
2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Most people will remember this book from Middle/High School, a time when teachers wouldn’t let up about the importance of proofreading. It’s ironic then that Mark Twain’s coming of age novel would be on our reading lists. When it hit the shelves in 1885, the novel was riddled with basic typos. Twain had insisted on using deliberately unpolished and incorrect English in his narration and dialogue, to show how “unsivilized” Huck is. One particular typo, however, was too puzzling to be purposeful. Page 57 reads, “I took the bag…and ripped a hole in the bottom of it with the was.” Say what?! Twain had accidentally swapped the consonants; it was supposed to say “with the saw.” Nevertheless, later editions of the book fixed it.
3. The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper
Not to be outdone, this 2010 historical novel, told from the point of view of Queen Elizabeth I’s caretaker, also includes a contextually hilarious typo. In one passage the protagonist is abruptly woken up after a night of passion. The line reads: “I tugged on the gown and sleeves I’d discarded like a wonton last night to fall into John’s arms.” The word she meant to type was “wanton,” meaning a promiscuous, lustful person. Instead of being left with a feeling of lust and desire, readers found themselves craving dumplings.
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
You might not expect it but even Pulitzer Prize winners can make mistakes. In the first edition of McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic story, a passage described“a moment of panic before he saw him walking along the bench downshore.” Since benches don’t have shores, it seems reasonable to assume McCarthy meant “beach.” Later versions of the book confirm that McCarthy probably just needed another set of eyes to proofread his work.
5. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
This 1925 novel, inspired by a true murder case from 1906, tells a haunting story of the fall of a hotel worker and the fragility of the American dream. With nearly 900 pages in the first edition, it was inevitable that there would be some typos. Most of them are of the “to/too” and “if/it” persuasion, but perhaps the funniest is the place where characters are referred to as “harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music—like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea.” One can probably assume he meant “ships,” but once again readers are left with a craving they were never expecting, this time for some salsa!
6. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
Joyce’s literary style is already hard for some people to follow, so you might have never noticed the typo if you weren’t hunting for it. And the story behind Joyce’s mistake is just as funny as the mistake itself. When Joyce was producing his 1939 behemoth, he actually dictated, rather than wrote, much of it. At one point, he was dictating the text to his friend Samuel Beckett, who wrote it down, when there was a knock on the door. Joyce said, “Come in”…and Beckett wrote “come in” in the manuscript. The error so amused Joyce and fit so well with the unusual style of his work that he decided to keep it in.
7. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
There’s some debate about whether or not this typo is a mistake. The original hardcover edition of Stephenson’s 1999 sci-fi thriller famously contained a number of simple typos like an “a” instead of “at,” or “that” instead of “that’s”. But further on there’s an important switch-up. The word factitious is used in place of “fictitious.” Many fans maintain that Stephenson did this deliberately and that the mistake comprises a hidden message, per one of the themes of the book: cryptographers attempting to crack World War II-era Axis codes.
8. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
The famous author of the Fire and Ice series that inspired the beloved HBO show Game of Thrones, should definitely employ another person to proofread his works. The whole series is rife with typos and consistency errors, but Book Five arguably has the most. For example, on page 854, Queen Cersei descends a staircase and muses: “’I am beautiful,’ she reminded himself.” The word wroth is also consistently misused in this book as well: page 53 says “Even in the north men fear the wroth of Tywin Lannister.” Wroth is an adjective, meaning angry, meaning that Martin probably should have used “wrath” instead.
9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Rather than focusing on the grammatical and spelling errors that riddle Meyer’s novels, I want to discuss a historical mistake. On page 289 it says “He actually discovered a coven of true vampires that lived hidden in the sewers of the city.” This part of the novel discusses the time when Carlisle was about to get bitten which took place around 1660-1670. The mistake here is that at that time there was no way anybody could hide in the sewers of London because there weren’t any. Sewage flowed openly down the middle of the streets until it came to the river Thames. There were no tunnels. Only about two hundred years later and many outbreaks of Cholera did London get its act together and charge Joseph Bazalgette to build a sewage system consisting of many interconnecting tunnels. It was built between 1859 and 1865. Many, many years later. Not a typo but definitely a funny mistake.
10. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
Every book goes through an extensive editing process before hitting bookstores. So how in the world did Heinlein publish a novel with a character whose name flips between Alice and Agnes on several occasions throughout the entire novel. There’s little reason to believe there’s some hidden meaning to the name change, so it’s most likely a simple editing mistake. What makes this typo even funnier is that it is one that persists in editions to this day. It reminds me of the episode of The Office where Dwight finds a “Dwigt” hidden in Michael’s manuscript after having tried to change the character’s name.
You would think (and hope) that a book used to define and spell words would be triple and quadruple proofread for errors. But, like Hannah Montana says, nobody’s perfect. One spelling mistake fell through the cracks in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. The editors planned to list abbreviations and words separately for this new edition. One editor, writing down the abbreviation for “density,” wrote “D or d” to show that the letter could be both upper and lowercase. But the “D or d” card accidentally ended up with the words instead of the abbreviations, so another editor removed the spaces and listed the word “dord” as a synonym for density. This “non-word” remained in the dictionary for a full five years until someone finally noticed it.
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