Planet (please spell-check this) Word

I have to ask, did anyone else get the book of the Stephen Fry series ‘Planet Word’ for Christmas?  If so, did you read it with gritted teeth and an overwhelming urge to go at it with a red pen?

I saw a couple of the episodes of the series and rather enjoyed them, though I thought a couple of the more scientific areas shown were a bit sketchy.  For example, there was a clip of Stephen Fry and Brian Blessed looking at words on a screen and saying out loud what colour the word was written in.  So they started with the names of colours in same-colour type (eg ‘red’ in red type) and then they did the same for swear words in coloured type.  They were slower in saying the colours of the swear words, which was supposed to tell us something about swear words: but there was no example of ‘ordinary’ words to compare with. While I can deal with that being cut for TV, I was hoping that the book of the series would be more comprehensive and fill in some of the areas that could do with more rigour.

However, the book is not quite the scholarly tome you would hope for.  It has some rather decent sections, but also some sections that just sound like a transcription of the voiceover.  In these, it seems to get rather confused about who the authorial voice is (it’s not supposed to be by Stephen Fry, but it’s rather confusing that it isn’t).

And most annoying of all, it looks like it has never seen a proof-reader in its life.  I know that this is common in Kindle books, but this is the genuine paper variety.  Yet it has ‘Noam Chomksy’, ‘achievment’ and ‘Messers Sapir and Whorf’ (OK, that last one rather amused me).  And it thinks that ‘thou’ is the formal ‘vous’ pronoun rather than the informal ‘tu’ (even a quick look at wikipedia would have sorted that one out).

It’s perfectly possible to write an excellent factual book as a companion to a series.  Just look at ‘The Invention of Childhood’ by Hugh Cunningham which accompanied Michael Morpurgo’s Radio 4 series of the same name.  It’s a very readable and fascinating introduction to the historical view of  childhood.  But of course it was written by a subject expert, which might make the difference.

Still, even if you’re going to write a slightly lightweight TV tie-in like ‘Planet Word’, surely you could run a spell-checker on it?

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2 Responses to Planet (please spell-check this) Word

  1. Trish says:

    I watched bits of the programme so thought the book would be good. Surprised at the errors in a book about words!

    (Thanks so much for your Stockholm suggestions on my blog. I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Having fun planning the trip now!)

  2. Becky says:

    Hmm – glad I didn’t get it now. The coloured word thing is an old psychology test called the Stroop Test and just shows how automatic reading is.You read the names of the colours rather than naming the colour. Having to name the colour of a word (any word that isn’t the colour itself ) shows an interference effect from the reading the word. The usual third condition is to have the names of incongruous colours (e.g. the word blue written in red) which shows the slowest response time in colour naming because of the conflict; most people automatically read the word and then have to suppress the read word in order to name the colour.

    Psychology lecture done now….

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