My spell-checker's 'weigh' with words

My computer never ceases to take me by surprise.

Not only me, but also those various professionals on whom I call more frequently than I'd like to admit. You know the people I mean (or not, as the case may be): the designated "Help" personnel. Where would we be today without them? I am the first to say that they are wonderful. They have dug me out of many an unwitting and enigmatic hole. Far be it from me to mention those occasions when, sometimes taking four or five hours on the phone (ah, old technology!) to do so, they have dug me deeper in. Best draw a veil over those eventualities.

But you know (or not, as the case may be) the sort of thing: When I am typing away (or should I say "keyboarding"?) and then, without warning, everything I write replaces everything I have previously written.

Or when I am writing merrily, without a care in the world, taking gratefully for granted the uncomplaining obedience of my pet laptop, and – presto! – every letter is now bright red and when I delete something, instead of disappearing it is crossed out with a line through its midriff.

Or when the white rectangle on the screen (that at least half of me still thinks of as a sheet of inserted paper), without a tick or a tock, a tap or a buzz, becomes half its accustomed size and shows only some of what one has written.

Or when ... I could go on and on ... well, then it is time for a professional to assure you (even if it is not quite true) that you are in charge of your computer, that you haven't "performed an illegal operation" causing your machine to be "closed down" forever, and that if you click this and click that, shut down and restart, everything will be as right as rain again – and lo! It is!

Sometimes, I find (you, too? Or not, as the case may be?) that my computer, without human intervention, tries to be helpful. When I start to write out a date, it bursts in and tells me what day and month and year it is. Thanks very much. Sometimes, when I have started a letter with "Dear Felicity or Arbuthnot," my computer has jumped in offering advice on letter writing. All very well meant, I'm sure. But a bit presumptuous, perhaps.

And spell checks. Hmm. They have their uses, I know, and every time I misspell certain hang-up words that I persistently get wrong, I am happy to see the little wiggly red underline that tells me the computer knows something that I don't know. "Accommodation" for instance, or "chiaroscuro."

On the other hand, if I come up with a sentence like: "Ham I write or rung when I right: 'Their whirr twenty-too people in thee rode standing buy my gait and, yew sea, that is tree or fore two many, ore far moor than eye wood chews two bee their," then my computer accepts every word as perfectly dandy and fine. Not a red wiggle in sight. Depending on the circumstances, this mite – or mite knot – be funny.

There is, however, one aspect of the spell-check routine that is definitely worth watching. This is when you know for certain that you haven't spelled a word or a name wrongly, but your computer simply doesn't have it on its list of familiar words. Then the substitutes it offers open up a rather engagingly fanciful world. It can sometimes be surreal.

If, for instance, I mention Vincent van Gogh, "Gogh" produces a red wiggle. And if I click on the word "Gogh" to make myself feel good about something I know that the computer doesn't know, then here is the "drop-down" list it presents: Goth, Gosh, Gag, Gig, Gong.

Other artists are similarly challenged. For Goya, my computer suggests (among others) "Yoga" and "Soya." For Botticelli, "optically" or "Monticello." For Sargent (obviously), "Sergeant." For Gainsborough it prefers two words: "Gains borough" – presumably a place with a town hall and a mall. Ingres was a 19th-century master; so were Courbet and Corot and Daubigny. Today these painters are renamed: Ingress, Curbed, Carrot, and Daubing. One possibly very confusing alternative is for Manet. The computer suggests "Monet." On the other hand, for Monet it suggests no alternative.

Whatever database is at the back of these helpful hints is alarmingly discriminatory. I mean, there are those who feel that Manet is a much greater painter than Monet, that Soya is no substitute for a consummate Spanish court artist of the 19th century, and that Van Gogh, for all his rough edges, was no Goth.

If one took too seriously some of these proposals, who knows what might happen? Something like this, perhaps: "Vincent, or to use his full name, Vincent van Gosh, admired Soya a lot. The work of some artists, however, he saw as a dead end – a veritable cool-de-sac, or, as it is sometimes called, a curl-de-sac.

"One little-known fact is that Van Gong was very fond of cats. And they were, it must be said, equally fond of him. Often, out in the wheat fields, he would hear them approaching from the surrounding farmsteads, attracted by the odor of turpentine and Chinese white pigment that they associated with Van Gig's presence. 'Mao! Mao!' they would cry.

"Today, Van Gag is famous for painting sunflowers and irises. Among the species of flowers he did not paint, however, we might mention the Primly or Premolar, a plant better known as the Primula. This is not so strange when you consider that these enchanting flowers were rare in the rural haunts favored by the artist.

"On the other hand, poppies do appear often in his pictures. These red delights are more familiar to botanists as palavers or popovers. Some, who know how to speak back to their computer when it comes up with preposterous proposals, may correctly call them 'papavers.' Vincent's brother was called Theo ... and nobody, even today, questions this indisputable fact."

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