Toxic Twins

When words are similar in spelling but very different in meaning

Utter the phrase “toxic twins” and most people immediately think of Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith. (Just ask Wikipedia.) That was their nickname, and consequently it’s the name of “Europe’s No.1 Aerosmith Tribute Band.”

I’m more interested in another form of toxic pairing: Two words that are similar in spelling but very different in meaning. These words are ticking time bombs, disasters waiting to happen, loaded guns. They practically force you to make typos (and use clichés when explaining their danger).

Their existence is on my mind because of two toxic twin typos that made their way into the press this week. The first was in Slate. An article that was quickly changed initially referred to the University of Virginity instead of the University of Virginia. In this case the toxic twins are Virginia/virginity (and, I suppose, “virgin.” Egads, a toxic threesome.) The idea is that it’s easy for your brain or fingers to slip up and replace the correct word with its troublesome twin, and vice-versa.

It sometimes seems that people give little thought to toxic twins and typos when creating proper names. Take, for example, the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Did no one think to consult a copy editor before christening it? Did they not see how easily the “r” in the second word could be misplaced, this introducing the world to the ominous sounding Large Hardon Collider?

The Daily Telegraph made that exact typo in a headline back in March, causing Gizmodo to declare it “The Typo We’ve Been Waiting For.” (Dream big, fellas.) “Admit it,” the blog declared. “You’ve been waiting for someone at a publication to slip up and make this typo ever since the LHC was announced.”

Extra points go to Gizmodo commenter Chicken who added, “Super collider? I hardly know her!”

Reuters also fell victim to this error earlier this week, as noted on its Good, Bad and Ugly blog. Here’s the offending sentence:

… The search for concrete evidence of dark matter and of what it might be is part of the work of CERN’s LHC, or Large Hardon Collider, the world’s biggest scientific machine that began operation near full force at the end of March.

As I pondered the Large Hardon Collider and University of Virginity, it occurred to me that it would be helpful to compile a list of other toxic twins. Two immediately came to mind:

• Public/pubic

• Shot/Shit

I then looked into my typo archives and turned up a few more (admittedly, some are more toxic than others):

• Thread/threat

• Buoy/boy

• Tears/teats

• Experiential/experimental

• Compositing/composting

• Genetic/genital

• Apostle/apostate

• Sikhs/sheiks

• Patties/panties

I knew there were many I was still missing, so I put out a call on Twitter and was rewarded with a few more examples. Here are the best suggestions, and the Twitter names of the folks who offered them:

• Prostate/prostrate (@BostonAbrams)

• Not it/no tit (@dhm)

• Meringue/merengue (@auntlisa)

• Marital/martial (@deannalford)

• Chicken/children (@PSBjulia)

• Obama/Osama (@joshvisser)

Consider this your toxic twins primer. Learn these pairings and train yourself to type each word carefully and look out for them. Or perhaps add a list of toxic twins to your accuracy checklist so you remember to look for any lurking in your copy.

Failing to spot a toxic twin could leave you prostated in a very pubic manner, or even in teats.

Correction of the Week

“In a May 21 ‘Slatest’ item, Jessica Loudis mistakenly cited a New Scientist article as saying that male bats that performed fellatio on each other before copulation. The article stated that female bats perform fellatio on male bats during copulation.” – Slate

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.