When Misspelling Compromises Our National Security

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what we can find. Recently, I learned from author Piper Bayard what words might trigger the Department of Homeland Security to monitor our social media.

After reading such unusual choices as “cloud” and “delays,” I decided to click over to the original source Piper had listed. The DHS Security Analyst’s Desktop Binder includes terms one should watch out for, sorted by category. The categories include Domestic Security, HAZMAT & Nuclear, and Terrorism.

But one of them is Weather/Disaster/Emergency. And reading the list, I found a slight problem:

DHS words list

On one hand, no big deal. Plenty of people misspell lightning (no e).

However, I began to wonder: Is our national security compromised somehow by a spelling error? Might we mistakenly declare a disastrous weather event if perhaps several people start tweeting about how their lamps are effectively lightening their rooms? Could catastrophe occur because a DHS security analyst is spending his time searching for the term lightening and completely missing a slew of lightning that could cause real damage?

Okay, fine. I’m a little OCD on stuff like this.

But it did perplex me that the people who managed to spell such things as “National Biosurveillance Integration Center” and “Viral Hemorrhagic Fever” managed to get lightning wrong.

But that’s the way it goes. There are errors so commonly made that it’s hard to even see them or worry about them. I swear that I misspell perseverance 99 out of 100 times that I type it.

So my suggestion is that with such tricky words, we simply double-check. One certainly doesn’t want our national security compromised due to a spelling error! Of course, I doubt that you’ve got so much riding on your spelling. But hey, maybe you do! Who am I to say?!

Here are a few commonly confused words to look out for:

Affect (to influence; to change) vs. effect (the result of a change)

Complement (to complete or enhance) vs. compliment (an expression of esteem or affection)

Defuse (to make less harmful or tense) vs. diffuse (to spread out)

Desert (arid land with sparse vegetation) vs. dessert (dish usually served at the end of a meal)

Pour (to cause to flow in a stream) vs. pore (to read or study attentively)

Principal (most important or consequential) vs. principle (fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption)

Lightening (making clearer or lighter) vs. lightning (flash of light from discharge of atmospheric electricity)

Stationary (immobile, static) vs. stationery (materials for writing or typing)

What words do you struggle to spell correct? Or get confused with another word? Do you think our national security has been compromised by a spelling error?

20 thoughts on “When Misspelling Compromises Our National Security

  1. Great post, Julie!

    The word I have the most trouble with is “occasional.” I misspell it and “occurrence” every time. *hangs head in shame*

    You should add “ensure” and “insure” to that list. People use “insure” (to get insurance) instead of “ensure” (to be sure something happens), and I twitch. 😀

  2. Dang, Julie! I don’t recall thinking about compliment/complement. May have killed that brain cell with a lovely Pinot Grigio.

    A new dimple. At least its on my brain, and not [this space intentionally left blank]

    I find it easy to remember principle versus principal because of the “pal” at the end of the latter. Money and people can be our pals.

    I struggled with dessert and desert until someone pointed out a trick. Dessert is special, so it gets the extra S.

    Another set I see misused frequently is loose v lose. Those are easy for me to remember because of Loose as a Goose and Loosey-Goosey. No. I do not wish to expound on why those two phrases toot my kazoo.

    Great examples. I shall pay more attention to the blue squiggly warning signs from MS Word.

  3. I love stuff like this, Julie! And I’d say the word I see misused the most often is affect vs effect.

    Thanks for getting my brain moving this morning. I hope you’re feeling better!

  4. A list of words that generate a “head’s up” for National Security? I never ever knew. That’s bizarre. A list of words dealing with weather? I truly don’t get it. I loved your list of misunderstood and misspelled words. Some I really have to think about before I write them down, like principle and principal. Good post.

  5. For desert, you could have added “to leave precipitously.” Oh, well. My misspellings are usually actually typos. I’ll write “to” when I meant “that.” Things of that sort.

    You wrote, “There are errors so commonly made that it’s hard to even see them or worry about them.” Since you are a grammarian, I assume you’ve just given up on the rule about not splitting infinitives. Most people ignore it anyway. Wish I could.

    1. ERK! David, I now fear commenting on your blog.

      Why? I did not know the meaning of split infinitive. I find it difficult to craft this comment with no split infinities.

      I now understand why Wikepedia cites it as the most hotly contested grammar rule in the English language.

      NOTE TO SELF: Search and destroy all “to” usage when commenting on David’s blog.

  6. When I first saw that lightening was a weather disaster, I immediately thought of lightening during pregnancy. You know that time just before labor when baby drops and mom can finally breath again? Tee hee, like the calm before the storm…

  7. The one that always gets me is “cemetery.” It comes out “cematary” or “cemetary” because I don’t think it looks right with all of those e’s in there.

    A lot of my misspellings come from using one hand to type. I’m always adding extra letters, leaving letters out, hitting two keys at once. It’s a pain.

  8. I need posts like this. Thank you, Julie. I almost always check affect vs effect when I use them. You’d think I’d have Grammar Girl’s aardvark example memorized by now, lol.

    1. What aadvark example? (Looking up now. I love Grammar Girl.)

      As long as you know your mix-ups and check ’em, I think you’re fine! It’s the people who continue insisting far beyond reason that their misspelling is correct who worry me. 😉

  9. Hell, if a misspelling, typos, or indifferent punctuation could cause trouble Armageddon would already be a reality TV show. Iyve prooved et meny tymes,

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