10 Funny Typos in Famous Works of Literature
Even grammar sticklers should be able to forgive the editors for these notorious (and often hilarious) goofs.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Mark Twain’s celebrated coming-of-age story The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn didn’t hit shelves in 1885 without a few errors. Twain insisted on using deliberately unpolished and incorrect English in his narration and dialogue, to show how “unsivilized” Huck is, but one particularly puzzling typo was not purposeful. Page 57 reads, “I took the bag…and ripped a hole in the bottom of it with the was.” Say what?! Twain had accidentally swapped the consonants; it should have been “with the saw.” Luckily, later editions of the book fixed it. Did you know that Huck Finn also got terrible reviews when it was first published? Here are some more classics that critics originally didn’t like.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
This 1925 novel, inspired by a real-life murder case from 1906, tells a haunting story of the fall of a hotel worker and the fragility of the American dream. With nearly 900 pages in the first edition (it was released as two separate volumes!), it may have been pretty much inevitable that there would be some typos. The fact that one of them happened to be quite funny was just an added bonus. One passage in An American Tragedy described two characters as “harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music—like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea.” A simile that was supposed to convey joyful frivolity…instead just made the reader hungry. Yes, Mr. Dreiser, we know you meant “ships,” but… mmmm, chips sound good right about now.
The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper
Not to be outdone, this 2010 historical novel, told from the point of view of Queen Elizabeth I’s caretaker, also includes an unintentional food reference. The Queen’s Governess has one passage describing the protagonist being abruptly woken up after a night of passion: “I tugged on the gown and sleeves I’d discarded like a wonton last night to fall into John’s arms.” The word she was thinking of was “wanton,” meaning a promiscuous, lustful person. Instead, readers find themselves craving dumplings. Get a laugh from the 9 most expensive typos in history.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling
The very first printing of J.K. Rowling’s debut novel, which hit British shelves on June 30, 1997, only consisted of a few hundred copies. These original, extremely valuable copies of Philosopher’s Stone have a few distinguishing features, one of which is an error on page 53. Harry’s school supply list has “1 wand” listed twice: At the top of the list and at the bottom. As Mr. Ollivander famously never said, “The wands choose the wizard, Mr. Potter.” Unsurprisingly, another work by J. K. Rowling makes the list of the most expensive books of all time.
Webster’s New International Dictionary
As the definitive resource on a language, a dictionary should ideally be completely error-free, but mistakes inevitably still happen. One such mistake resulted in perhaps the most famous dictionary typo of all time. It appeared in the 1934 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. The editors planned to list abbreviations and words separately for this new edition. One editor, writing down the abbreviation for “density,” wrote “D or d” to show that the letter could be both upper and lowercase. But the “D or d” card accidentally ended up with the words instead of the abbreviations, so another editor removed the spaces and listed the word “dord” as a synonym for density. This “non-word” remained in the dictionary for a full five years until someone finally noticed it.
The Holy Bible
Editors of the Good Book are under a lot of pressure. They wouldn’t want to mistakenly make people think that a sin like, say, adultery is condoned by the Ten Commandments, right? Well, that’s exactly what a 1631 edition of the King James Bible, remembered by history as “the Wicked Bible,” did. The edition, printed by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, listed the seventh Commandment as “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Barker and Lucas subsequently lost their printing licenses. Scandalized, devout readers burned their copies; only an estimated ten copies with this misprint remain intact today. Learn some more surprising facts you never knew about the Bible.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Even Pulitzer Prize winners make mistakes! In the first edition of McCarthy’s 2006 post-apocalyptic story The Road, a passage described “a moment of panic before he saw him walking along the bench downshore.” Since benches don’t have shores, it seems reasonable to assume McCarthy meant “beach.” (The following lines, as well as later editions of the book, confirm this.)
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
Not just the first edition but the first three editions of Buck’s 1931 novel contained a small error. The Good Earth, which details the lives of farm workers in early 20th century China, contains a passage that describes a line of huts against a wall. In the early editions, the passage read, “against the base the small mat sheds clung like flees to a dog’s back.” This is a pretty straightforward homophone situation: Fleas are what might cling to dogs, while a runaway dog flees its home. You’re sitting on a gold mine if you own one of these rare books.
Plague Ship by Clive Cussler with Jack Du Brul
If you’re going to let a typo slip into a published edition, you should at least make sure it’s not a word that’s infamous for grossing people out. A harrowing passage in this 2008 novel, about a character getting trapped inside an ATV, is interrupted by the word moist. The errant line in Plague Ship reads: “He goosed the throttle and worked the wheel, using the four-wheeler’s power rather than moist his strength to right the six-hundred-pound vehicle.” Yes, that’s right: Moist. As a verb. That might just be enough to make grammarians slam the book shut in horror.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
James Joyce is famous for his already confusing, challenging-to-follow prose, and this little slip-up in Finnegans Wake might be tough to notice if you’re not looking for it. When Joyce was producing his 1939 behemoth, he actually dictated, rather than wrote, much of it. At one point, he was dictating the text to his friend Samuel Beckett, who wrote it down, when there was a knock on the door. Joyce said, “Come in”…and Beckett wrote “come in” in the manuscript. The error so amused Joyce—and fit so well with the unusual style of his work—that he decided not to remove it! Next, have you read these books everybody lies about reading?
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