Steve Jones

I was struck this week by the occurances of the mis-typing of Obama and Osama. In particular the spectacularly dim Breaking News headline from Fox News who announced ‘Obama Bin Laden Dead‘ across the world’s TV screens. Of course predictive text often throws up howlers. My recent attempt to type ‘baubles’ was replaced by ‘Bibles’ to unfortunate effect. The problem, more often than not, is that the rogue word is missed by spell-checkers that leave the wrong word as long as it is spelled correctly.

And then there is the time you use the right word and the spelling is tip top – and you still get a very wrong outcome.

In the days of Dial-Up (when download speeds were about the same as BT’s rural broadband but with a bing-boing-chirruppy tune worthy of the late, great Delia Derbyshire) I found myself hunting a photograph that had previously made a strong impression on me. Henry Steadman, at Transworld at the time, had commissioned me for a book jacket for Almost Like a Whale. Author and Professor of Genetics, Steve Jones revisits the massive impact of Charles Darwin‘s On the Origin of Species. He carefully re-traces the steps of Darwin’s arguement with the Clarks Wayfinders of contemporary scientific knowledge.

Darwin had speculated that a bear swimming and catching fish might be the first transitional stage of evolution towards becoming ‘like a whale’. Put that way way it almost makes evolution sound as improbably potty as Creationism. But not quite. But on discovering the source of the enigmatic title I remembered a great shot I had seen of a Polar Bear swimming. It was shot from below with the the light streaming down throught the icy waters. A huge beast made even more graceful by buoyancy. I find it very moving. Especially Hippos and Elephants. But maybe that’s just me.

So, into a creaky bakerlite search-engine went the words ‘Polar Bear’. No room for error there. Could have been a child doing a homework project. Nothing can go wrong.

And it didn’t for a while. Page after page of the predictable and over-used as I sought the slippery Ursus Maritimus image that had stimulated my synapses and squirrelled it away for later. Cuddling, sleeping, eating, fighting, performing in case David Attenborough dropped by. Flogging Glacier Mints. All was well, if time consuming.

And then it appeared.

Slowly, line by line, the assembling pixels of one huge image whose very sloth demanded attention. It was one big beast. Lots of white fur. And, not in the heraldic sense, erect and rampant. It was a nude Pin-Up. And I learnt something new to add to my meagre education. ‘Polar Bear’ is gay slang for a septugenarian naked man with lots of white body hair. And a hard-on.

I’m not easily shocked but I nearly dropped my Liquorice Allsorts.

What have you found by mistake in a picture search? How has predictive text complicated your life?


  • Magpie

    A friend of mine wrote a song called, The Dream, and used to sing it often at our social song circles. At some point, I wanted to get the lyrics and googled a phrase from the lyrics (since I couldn’t remember the title of the song): “burly thighs”. That was a mistake. The lyrics are here if anyone is interested. I love this song: was also doing a unit for kindergartners on Nursery Rhymes (and the like) and was looking for a picture of Goldilocks or Little Bo Peep or something innocuous like that. That one also brought up some startling results. It seems to me I had a similar problem with some furry animal I needed a photo of. ‘Furry’ being a clue as to what I was getting in my search results.

  • Paul Gailey

    digitally farting…we’ve all been there, indelible blunders and #FF0800 faces and I can attest that bilingually typing often screws up the autocorrect like you just wont believe. But it gets worst. The post modern autocorrect is the short URL mistype when you inadvertently omit or modify a character and unwittingly send out a link to a ‘polar bear’ type page.

  • Michelle

    Hilarious, Gary. I had a similar experience helping my then 7 yr old daughter do a healthy eating project for school. We Googled “exotic fruit” – Jazz was fine, but I think I may still be traumatised 🙂

  • Gary Day-Ellison

    Oof, Michelle. Hope you didn’t get “Strange Fruit” images. That song is about Deep South Negro lynchings. Hateful stuff.

  • Stevyn Colgan

    I’m slowly becoming a polar bear … while straight myself I have a number of LGBT mates and have occasionally drunk with them in gay pubs. My generally hirsute appearance has them queueing to buy me a drink. If only I could get the same reaction from women. Sigh. On a different tack, a naive ex-police female colleague of mine once regretted typing ‘watersports’ into a search engine while hunting for a Florida holiday resort …

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