Hi there, sweaty, this is going to scrabble your mind

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The Independent Online
I NEVER thought I would get a computer and, as it was my wife and not me who initiated the great move, I suppose I never have, but now that between us we have an Apple Mac Classic II humming away in the corner of one room downstairs, I find myself sneaking on to it from time to time to write pieces and to play a sort of rough and ready Scrabble.

The way you play rough and ready Scrabble with a computer is this. You write your article and then you operate your spelling check. That is, you order the computer to go through the article picking out words which it thinks are spelt wrong and challenging it to suggest alternatives and better versions. The computer spelling check will then pick out every word it doesn't know, which makes you feel good, and suggest new ones, which often you don't know and which makes you feel bad.

I always know which word it will query first. The word is Kington. It doesn't recognise the word Kington. I am not surprised. I have gone through my life having my name not recognised. People usually think my name is Kingston. Even people who are trained to spell names correctly think it is Kingston. The last passport I had issued to me was in the name of 'Miles Kingston', and if the Passport Office can't get it right . . . .

So the computer queries the word 'Kington' and suggests, as a replacement, 'Kingston'. How come even a computer calls me Kingston? Easy, as a matter of fact. When the computer people installed the machine, they programmed the name 'Kington' into the Microsoft package. However, they spelt it Kingston. And now it can't be changed.

The spelling check has most of its trouble with names, very few of which it seems to be familiar with. Sometimes it sits and whirrs for ages and then says 'no suggestions'. It has no alternative suggestions for such odd names as Brandreth, or Kerridge, or Paxman, or even Murdoch, though I would have thought that 'murder' was near enough to the latter.

But usually it defends its honour by coming up with a picturesquely useless alternative. For the unfamiliar 'Bosnia' it suggests 'Bonsai'. 'Isabel' comes out as 'usable', 'Kinnock', is unrecognised and comes out as 'Kink'.

Just to be fair, 'Lamont' is unrecognised and comes out as 'lament'. Very little of 'John Selwyn Gummer' is recognised as human, and the version offered by the spelling check is 'John Welwyn Gummier', which is certainly no worse. For 'Dimbleby' it has the intriguing alternative suggestion 'Dumbbell'. It thinks Minnelli should be 'menial' and it would like to change Sir Bernard Ingham into Sir Bernard Gingham.

I can't remember now why I wanted to write about Derek Hatton, but I must have done, because I have made a note that his nickname, 'Deggsy', was rejected by the spelling check in favour of 'Degas'. 'InterCity' is always changed to 'intricate'. Lord Byron came back, improved by the unimpressed computer to 'Lord Bighorn', which I think has the right ring to it. Mr Blobby came back as Mr Bloody. And anyone called Gavin is always improved to 'Gamin', which fits some Gavins very well and others very badly.

Going beyond names, there are other areas in which the spelling check seems strangely naive. It doesn't know that 'TV' is an abbreviation for 'television'. It has no knowledge of English slang, rejecting 'naff' in favour of 'naif' and 'git' in favour of 'gift'.

It won't accept old word forms such as 'lo' or 'thy' (it prefers 'thigh'), and 'shalt', for which it suggested 'sheltie'. I have never come across the word sheltie, but I am assured by an old dictionary that it is familiarly short for Shetland pony.

It even interferes with artistic dialogue. I was once writing a parody of some American novella and tried to include the line, 'Hi there, sweetie]'. This the spelling check refused to countenance. It suggested instead, 'Hi there, sweaty]'

But the neatest trick the spelling check has ever pulled off was in response to a time I thought I had it bamboozled. I wrote a piece with the word 'quango' in it. I thought, not unfairly, that this would fox the computer. It did. It had never heard of 'quango'. But it suggested as an alternative the word 'quahog'. This threw me. I had never heard of quahog, and still never have. One up to the computer.

STOP PRESS. I have just consulted oldest and dustiest dictionary, and have learnt that 'quahog' is an alternative spelling for quahaug, the name for the North American clam so often used in soups and stews. Where on earth did it learn that?

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