Introducing President "Barracks Boatman" - Updated

A campaign blog.
Nov. 6 2008 2:50 PM

Introducing President "Barracks Boatman" - Updated

Did you mean President-elect Boatman? Barack Obama may beone of the most recognizable figures in America, but there's a decent chance your copy ofMicrosoft Word or Outlook is still shrugging when you type in his name.

The 2003 Word nudges you in the direction of Osama or Bema , which, in one of life’s delectable little ironies, apparentlyrefers to a platform forpublic oratory in Ancient Greece. Outlook 2003 also offers Boatman , Agama , and Boom , and ahandful of others.

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A Microsoft spokesperson tells me that they added Obama intotheir spell check library in April 2007, and issued a hotfix —basically, a small updateto the software—that adds both "Barack" and "Obama." (I installed the 2003 version of the Hotfix,which is at least a five-step process and requires installing a 5.9 MB file. Itworked.)

"We consider a number of factors when updating our content,including user feedback, frequency of the words in market area publications,and the first names of public figures whose last names have been added," thespokesperson says. According to the version of the hotfix forOffice 2007, the words Friendster , Klum , Nazr , and Racicot alsoshipped out with Obama .

Because the Office products are using a spell check libraryon your local machine, however, these updates don’t show up automatically. The Obama add was included in a largebatch of updates for Word 2007, while those of us using 2003 are stuck witha corrugated red line under the president-elect. The Webmail version of Outlook that the Washington Post uses is similarly clueless, also suggesting "Barracks" for Obama's first name.

The built-in spell checker in Firefox 3 also fails torecognize Obama Obadiah ? Bamako ?—whileGmail’s spell checker does. (It’s easy to confuse the two if you’re readingmail in Firefox. The browser spell checker underlines words as you type, whilethe Gmail version activates when you click "Check Spelling" to the upper rightof the body text.)

Update, 3:30 p.m.: In an e-mail, Firefox director Mike Beltzner says the browser uses an open-source framework called Hunspell for its spell checking. Hunspell, in turn, relies on open-source spelling dictionaries to determine which words are recognized. A ticket has been filed with the Hunspell team to add Barack and Obama . Like with Word, Beltzner notes that Firefox allows users to add custom words themselves in the mean time.

Update, Nov. 6: Predictably, Google has a innovative way to keep its library relevant. A spokeswoman passes along this statement: "Our vocabulary for spell checking is automatically derived from occurrences in our query stream and in web documents.  As soon as a word appears in the query stream or web documents, it is eligible to be part of our spell check vocabulary.  The word will actually start getting used in spell check when we next refresh the spell checking model. Thus, Barack Obama has probably been in our spell check vocabulary for many years now."

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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