Anyone who has ever worked in book production will know the exquisite agony of opening the first shiny new inspection copy of a work and being hit in the eye by the most blindingly obvious, incredibly stupid and horrifying ostentatious typo – which of course had eluded months of copyediting, proofreading and other quality checks.
Distressingly, the digital revolution has tended to make things worse rather than better: against the plus of spell-checks is the minus of what can only be called robotic stupidity; against the clumsiness and expense of making corrections in lines of metal type, or sticking corrected words on to camera-ready-copy with wax (gosh, how one dates oneself!), is the nightmare of something going awry with the fonts after the final proof is approved for press, or a hasty and ill-judged last-minute correction having unexpected consequences, up to and including the wasting of a whole print-run. (A great advantage of the print-on-demand model is that there is no print-run to waste: so that after the ritual swearing at one’s own or a third party’s incompetence, it is merely(!) a question of wiping egg off face, correcting the master file, sending it to the manufacturer, and remembering to check that the earlier version has been cast into complete oblivion.)
Henry Wheatley, the bibliographer and doyen of indexing, produced a short jeu d’esprit in 1893 on the topic of Literary Blunders. He provides a dizzying number of examples, carefully defining the different kinds of blunder – authors’, translators’, bibliographers’, schoolboys’, foreigners’ (material from the latter two sections is acquired from a large number of sources, including students’ exam answers contributed by Sir Oliver Lodge) – and points out that ‘we usually call our own blunders mistakes, while our friends style our mistakes blunders’. This is one of those irregular verbs, like ‘I am a traveller, You are a tourist, He is a tripper’ (or ‘I have an independent mind, You are an eccentric, He is round the twist’, from the superb and unforgettable Yes, Minister). Wheatley argues that ‘the class of blunders is a subdivision of the genus mistakes … there is always some sense of fun connected with a blunder’, and a blunder is itself almost always connected with some sort of mental confusion.
He goes on to demonstrate his thesis by use of examples, some familiar, others less so, and many of them laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll resist the temptation to quote too many, but I really liked a translated play title: Colly Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift became La dernière chemise de l’amour in French. There is a very interesting, historically based, chapter on the rise and use of errata slips: an early one asserted that the errors arose because the Devil drenched the manuscript in the gutter and then cast a spell upon the printer to misread it. Several others address the ‘good reader’ directly and beg his forbearance – explanations as disparate as the proofs not being delivered in time because the Thames froze over, or the translator being struck by God with sickness, are apologetically produced.
And talking of God, there is a fascinating section on the ‘Wicked Bible’ (see the title to this piece) – apparently, although the mistake was legendary, some bibliographers did not believe in it until a copy of the 1631 Bible with the error in it was discovered (and demonstrated to be genuine) in 1855; five other copies came to light over the next few decades. (A less familiar error from the same decade is from the Psalms: ‘The fool hath said in his heart there is God.’)
I was pleased to see that Wheatley is familiar with my ‘open the book and it hits you in the eye’ experience: ‘The curious point is that a misprint which has passed through proof and revise unnoticed by reader and author will often be detected immediately the perfected book is placed in the author’s hands. The blunder which has hitherto remained hidden appears to start out from the page, to the author’s great disgust.’ But I have also noticed one or two potential misprints in this very book: surely Deudrologia, or Dodona’s Grove, should be Dendrologia, for example? Perfection, of course, is not for mere mortals: there’s a nice story about an attempt to produce an error-free edition of Horace: the Glasgow printer Foulis ‘caused the proof-sheets after revision to be hung up at the gates of the University, with the offer of a reward to any one who discovered a misprint. In spite of all this care there are, according to Dibdin, six uncorrected errors in this edition.’