Seeing what you expect to see

Just yesterday I was looking at the cover of one of my books and noticed something funny. It was a volume of English translations of Euripides, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore — only they had written his name as Richmond Lattimore, right there on the front cover! Then I looked at the back cover, and the title page, and a Sophocles book by the same editors — and I found that, by golly, the guy’s name actually was Richmond.

I read a lot of Greek literature in translation, and I must have seen Mr. Lattimore’s name hundreds or even thousands of times before without ever once noticing that it wasn’t Richard. They say the brain recognizes words mainly by how they begin and end (wcihh is why Esilgnh is slitl pltcefrey lbilege wehn you wtrie it lkie tihs), and I suppose the first time I encountered this particular name, my brain said something like, “R-I-C-something, ends with D — okay, I know this one.” After that, the more times I saw the name, and the more familiar it became, the more likely my brain would be to recognize it as a unit rather than actually reading it letter-by-letter and recognizing its mistake.


This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. It was only last year that I discovered, much to my surprise, that Euripides himself was not called Euripedes — this after reading about a dozen of his plays and writing extensively about him in a notebook.

When I was a child, I was once discussing the characters in a Tintin book with my sister, and she mentioned the name Spalding. I said, “Don’t you mean Spadling?” She said she was pretty sure the character’s name was Spalding, but I insisted: “No, it’s Spadling — you know, like the basketball brand!” — at which point she went and got our Spalding basketball and showed it to me. You don’t forget an embarrassing experience like that. (Years later I tried to correct the same sister, then a grad student in philosophy, for saying Leibniz instead of Liebniz. I should have learned my lesson the first time.)


I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this. Another childhood memory is of my father reading to us from The Lord of the Rings — and always pronouncing Rohirrim as “Rohimmir” (though I can’t be sure he thought it was spelled that way, I suppose). And I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people list “Jane Austin” as a favorite author — that is, an author whose name they must have seen written innumerable times and should be able to spell.


Some of these mistakes are pretty easy to understand. There are 200 Austins for every Austen in the most recent U.S. Census, and Richmond is so unusual as a Christian name that I can’t even calculate how much less frequent it is than Richard, the seventh-most popular name for men in my country.

“Spadling,” of course, is not a normal name at all, but the -ling ending is fairly common in English, and I suppose that’s what my brain thought it recognized. It made the same mistake when I read Tolkien, reading Eorlingas as Eorlings. (I was really quite shocked to discover much later that the a had been there all along.) My father’s own Rohan-related misreading is harder to understand, though, since -im as a suffix for the name of a people should seem quite natural to a Bible-reader, much more so than -ir.

“Euripedes” and “Liebniz” are also hard to understand. I guess a lot of Greek names end in -edes, like Archimedes and — well, that’s the only one that comes to mind. I think I have a reasonable guess for “Liebniz,” though. My pre-teen philosophical education consisted of (1) reading everything Plato ever wrote, (2) reading everything Nietzsche ever wrote, and (3) nothing else. When I first encountered another German philosopher with a prominent ni-z in his name, my brain must have decided that ie was a more appropriate vowel than ei.


The strange thing about errors of this kind is how confident we are in them. I wasn’t unsure about the names Spalding and Leibniz; I was confidently correcting people who pronounced them correctly! It’s not that I was unsure of Mr. Lattimore’s Christian name. If you had asked me two days ago, I would have said without hesitation, “Richard.” And if you’d said, “Are you sure it isn’t Richmond?” — well, as they say, I could have sworn his name was Richard. Why? Because I’d seen his name so very many times, and every single time I saw it as Richard.



Filed under Language, Psychology

3 responses to “Seeing what you expect to see

  1. bgc

    Actually, the error is not at all strange – given that humans are not spontaneously literate, and literacy is achieved only with considerable difficulty.

    What is, in fact, strange is that you and others should think it is strange!

    It goes to show that we modern intellectuals live in a bubble, does it not?

  2. Bruce, the fact that people make reading/writing errors is, as you say, not surprising at all. What I find interesting is the fact that a person can see something hundreds of times and perceive it incorrectly (with the same incorrect perception) every time. I think that says something about how perception works, something which also applies to forms of perception other than reading.

    The more familiar you are with something, the less likely you are to actually perceive it. The brain recognizes it as familiar and fills in the details from memory. (To invert one of Blake’s proverbs, the wise man sees not the tree the fool sees.) If you misperceive something early on, further experience with that thing is more likely to reinforce that misperception (or increase your confidence that the misperception is actually accurate) than to correct it.

  3. You may recall that i incorporated the observation that people ( humanimals ) can read a body of text if only the first & last letters of each word are in their correct positions, in Uncode #6 :

    Reading hardly takes the letter combination’s into consideration at all. !

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