Freshly Ground Black What?

21 04 2010

Saturday 17 April. Everyone surely knows now about the fiasco at Penguin publishers. Who would have thought that a recipe for pasta would end up costing about $20,000? A proof-reader (I’m wondering if s/he’s looking for a new job) somehow let “freshly ground black people” (in place of “black pepper”) slip through the nets

The Penguin Group Australia’s Head of Publishing acknowledged the error, calling it “a silly typo” but also admitting to being “mortified” and wondering how anyone could find it offensive. The printed copies of the book (The Pasta Bible) have been pulped (ouch) , but if you have already  bought one, and you’re “small-minded enough to complain”,  they say they’ll “happily” refund your money.

It’s a lovely story and arguably very pregnant with discussion fodder. Some appear below:

  • There’s some dispute as to whether this kind of error should be called a “typo”, with purists arguing that strictly speaking a typo is a typographical error – such as when one might type in wueen for queen, the typo having its source in the proximity of “Q” and “W” on the keyboard. Personally, I have a much looser/broader/open/more relaxed and tolerant definition of typo –  to wit: any error that appears in the final text that was not an intended part of earlier drafts. There’s a whole lot of room for possibility in there. In any case, it  involves some assumptions: such as,  that the author of the pasta dish was in fact recommending freshly ground pepper. I won’t apologize for there being assumptions, because in my view, these are an integral part of establishing meaning.
  • Let’s assume for the moment that it’s a QWERTY-based error. I’d love to know when it slipped in. Was it there from the beginning? Is it what the author originally, if mistakenly, wrote? Or did it slip in further down the track, as the text passed through the hands and eyes of multiple editors, readers and proofers  in the publication process. Truth is, it takes a village to raise a book, not just a child.
  • So far I’ve been talking about the mechanical processes by which a typo might arrive.  There’s also the notion of the Freudian Slip:  the term given to a verbal mistake thought to reveal a repressed belief, thought, or emotion. Called “Freudian” after the great man, not because he was particularly prone to them (though he may have been; indeed given his thing about repressions,  he likely was) but who’s said to have noted them and brought them to the attention of the public imagination.
  • Of course, no one is surprised that Penguin would call it “a silly typo”. After all, at one level, that’s exactly what it is. On the other hand, it’s somewhat disingenuous to claim that offence is incomprehensible. Why else would you go in for the pulping as a reaction? You might say this is Political Correctness gone mad. But persecution and maltreatment of people because of their colour has a long, long history. And it’s not even history (as in things-of-the-past).  It continues apace, notwithstanding a black man being in the White House. Want to read more on the subject? Try Randall Kennedy’s (2003) Nigger. The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. (Vintage Books: New York).

No doubt Penguin is aware that efforts to minimize the broadcast reach of the fiasco may well have the opposite effect. Better all round to bite the bullet and move on.
My final word on the subject:  it better bloody be a good pasta dish!

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