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Palin isn't in the Word dictionary

Why isn’t Sarah Palin in the MS Word dictionary and the suggested spellings offensive to some people? We explain why Microsoft is NOT to blame, what’s happening and how to fix it.

You can tell election fever is getting too hot when poor old Microsoft Office gets dragged into arguments between Republicans vs. Democrats.

Earlier in the year we started getting messages accusing Microsoft of a right-wing bias. The reason? When you typed ‘Obama’ into Microsoft Word (and Hotmail) was marked as an incorrect spelling – worse the suggested ‘correct’ spelling was ‘Osama’. This has been fixed though it took Microsoft a surprisingly long time to sort it out.

Now it’s coming from the other end of the political spectrum. A few Office Watchers have been writing along these lines:

“Microsoft Word doesn’t know how to spell ‘Palin’ as in the name of the next Vice-President of the USA. To add insult the corrections are either ‘Pain’ or ‘Plain’. Why hasn’t Microsoft fixed this? Do they want to add to the slurs against this fine woman?” – Jeremy J from Michigan

Jeremy is right that ‘Palin’ isn’t recognized in Word 2007 but at the risk of getting into a political battle – there is no way that Microsoft is engaging in any bias or attempted slur. Let’s all take a deep breath folks. There’s neither conspiracy nor political bias here, it’s just Microsoft Word working as it should.

If MS Word detects a word not in its dictionaries, it will flag it with the now-familiar red squiggly line. If you ask for suggested spellings the program will look for dictionary words that have similar spellings – in the case of ‘Palin’ the suggestions are: Plain, Paling, Pain, Palling and “Pal in” in Word 2007. 

Word 2007 - suggestions for Palin image from Palin isn

Word 2003 SP2 has almost the same suggestions (the last one changes to ‘Pliant’).

The supplied dictionaries in Microsoft Office now contain many proper names like common place names and names of well-known leaders (past and present). This latter category includes (for US English Word 2007) such names as Thatcher, Blair, Churchill, Roosevelt and Nixon. Some other names like Bush, Carter and Major didn’t need special entries because they are also regular dictionary words. Clinton is a widely used place name and may have been in spell-checkers before 1992.

The exact rules Microsoft uses to include people in the Word dictionary are unknown and are probably not fixed in stone anyway. The guidelines would and should have some ‘wriggle room’ for exceptional circumstances.

Interestingly, ‘Biden’ and ‘McCain’ show up as a correct spelling in Word 2003 and Word 2007. We assume that’s because the Senators have served for some time, in fact Sentator Biden is currently ranked sixth in US Senate seniority.

Barack Obama, while prominent in the public eye for some time, is officially a junior US Senator; which might explain why his name took some time to filter through to all the Microsoft dictionary incarnations. The unfortunate suggested spelling of ‘Osama’ probably sped up the process.

Governor Palin was, until a few weeks ago, a US state governor. It’s understandable that her surname isn’t covered by the Word 2007 dictionary – events have been unanticipated and too little time has passed for any update to become available. With one exception (see below) there’s no famous ‘Palin’ person or place names that would have put the word into the spell-checker before now. Since the suggested spellings aren’t as odious as the one for Senator Obama, there’s probably less pressure on Microsoft to supply a patch.

Other US state governor names like Rell (R-Connecticut), Crist (R-Florida), Minner (D-Delaware) and Beshear (D-Kentucky) don’t make the Word 2007 dictionary. Governor Palin wasn’t omitted deliberately – clearly being a US Governor isn’t sufficient, of itself, to join the exalted ranks of MS Word dictionary listing .

How to fix it

There’s a simple way to stop the red squiggly line for a particular word – you can do that for a single document or add it to your personal Office dictionary (which applies to all documents on that computer).

To mark a word as correct for a single document – right-click on the word and choose the ‘Ignore All’ from below the suggested spelling list.

To mark a word as OK for all documents – right-click on the word and choose ‘Add to Dictionary’.

A modest proposal

I’d like to think that Microsoft has more than a few Monty Python fans – if the members of that famous comedy team had already been added to the MS Word dictionary then the current ‘Palin’ problem would not have arisen.

Michael Palin is a well-known name for any lover of comedy. He is one of the famous Monty Python team moving onto film roles like the stuttering animal lover in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ and recently globe-trotting TV traveler.

Chapman, Jones, Idle and Gilliam are all OK in the Word 2007 & 2003 dictionaries. Palin will presumably be in the next revision so why not add ‘Cleese’ to complete the set?

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