The Corporate ABCs

I knew something was odd when Microsoft's spelling checker corrected my typing of Bertelsmann, the German corporation that controls most of the world's English-language trade publishing. It's not your average English word. Neither are Westvaco, Enron, and Supervalu; nor Chevron, Costco, and Ameritech. But all of those semi-words are among the corporate monikers Microsoft has built into the English (U.S.) dictionary of its industry-standard Word 2000, often at the expense of traditional words.

Monsanto, Paine Webber, and Citibank are included. So is Microsoft's public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom. But the authentic English noun "wagoner" (someone who drives a wagon) is declared a misspelling. Trademarked products like Trinitron, Twinkies, and Ritalin count as correct. Gaudí, Pasternak, and the Louvre do not.

The logic for the dictionary's programmers may be the same as elsewhere: When corporate entities annex big chunks of public life, their names become the coin of the realm. It's meant to be convenient. The results are anything but. Microsoft's additions make ordinary spell-checking more inefficient and prone to failure--not the least because corporate names, in order to capture a copyright, often include deliberate misspellings of English words. Pity the careless writer who mistypes English words like "squib" or "signal" in Word 2000, where Bristol-Myers Squibb is a correct spelling, and likewise Cigna. What hope is there for the bargain hunter who wants to celebrate a super value in a world of Supervalu?

You don't have to agree with George Orwell that the degradation of language paves the way for slovenliness of thought to suspect Microsoft's move is somewhat dubious. The more natural corporations seem--the more they're a part of our environment, like clouds or trees--the more they get a free ride from consumers. In the end, corporate presence in language helps homogenize opinion; corporate tampering with words pollutes the possibilities of expression. Even Microsoft knows Orwell's words for these phenomena, which show up in the spelling checker right alongside the names of mercenary banks, pacifying drugs, and multinational entities: groupthink and newspeak.

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