Saturday, September 18, 2021


It takes inspiration and vision to turn an error into a moment of serendipity, but instances of an error supplanting that which didn’t need replacing are rarer still. It was harder than I expected to compile a list of cases where a fix occurred where there wasn’t a problem, but I found more examples than I expected.


The following is a list of items, and people, that received their names by accident. In all cases, they were already known under a different name when the accident occurred. A decision will have been made to keep the mistake made, or no subsequent attempt was made to correct the mistake.


1) Cilla Black: Best known as presenter of ITV entertainment shows “Blind Date” and “Surprise Surprise,” and for her initial career as a singer – the best-selling song by a female artist in the 1960s in the UK was her version of “Anyone Who Had a Heart” – Cilla Black was born Priscilla White, first performing under the name “Swinging Cilla” at the Zodiac Club in Liverpool, following a few unplanned performances at the Cavern Club, where she worked in the cloakroom. Her surname was flipped into negative in 1961 by the local music newspaper “Mersey Beat,” a name that turned a scene into a genre. Its publisher, Bill Harry, made the mistake. Cilla Black signed with manager Brian Epstein in 1963, having seen her perform with The Beatles, and then on her own.


2) Ovaltine: To my knowledge, I have never drunk Ovaltine, but only because it sounds like I would still prefer hot chocolate. A flavouring product made of malt extract, whey and sugar, with cocoa for taste, Ovaltine is added to milk to make what is traditionally a bedtime drink in the UK, alongside the similar Horlicks. The drink originally also contained eggs, and is still known in its birthplace of Switzerland and elsewhere under the name Ovomaltine. However, the name change for the UK was made long before eggs were removed from the recipe – it was a spelling mistake on the trademark application, contracting the name down.


3) Lew Grade: A talent agent and TV executive whose companies, ATV and ITC, were associated with everything from “Crossroads” and “Thunderbirds” to “The Muppet Show” and “Jesus of Nazareth”, Lew, Baron Grade of Elstree entered showbusiness as a professional dancer. Born in Russia as Lev Winogradsky in 1906, moving with his family to the UK at the age of five, “Louis Grad” was the name he danced under, until a typing error in a Paris newspaper report added a vowel. The name “Grade” was also used by his brother Leslie, also a talent agent, and passed to his nephew Michael, who later ran BBC One and Channel 4. However, Lew’s other brother, Bernard Delfont, originally also a dancer, continued to use his own stage name to distinguish himself from his brothers.


4) “Ye Olde…”: This is a case of a term being used for effect, when everyone knows it is wrong. The English language as written in the years until the post-Tudor period continued to use the letter “thorn” where we would use the two letters “th”, making “the” into “þe”.  The first printing presses often substituted the thorn for “y”, which more closely resembled how most people wrote it, especially when Gothic type made it resemble a closed þ. Now, the y sound of “ye” is deliberately, and incorrectly, used and pronounced retroactively to evoke an old-time period where it was never used.


5) The Hindu-Arabic Number System: The Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī wrote a treatise in around 825 AD titled, in modern English, “On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”. Three centuries later, it was translated into Latin as “Algoritmi de numero Indorum” – “Algorismus on the Indian Numbers” – giving the author a Latinised name. Alongside the work of the Italian mathematician Fibonacci, the treatise served as the introduction of “Arabic numerals” to the West, e.g. 0 and 1-9, but it became known as “algorism” or “algorithm”, using the “originator’s” name to describe a type of arithmetic, instead of just using a word like “arithmetic.” As this number system became dominant, to the point of no longer needing a distinguishing name, the word “algorithm” would later be applied to definitions relating to computer instructions.

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