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Academics call Tucson 'most misspelled major city' in America
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From the archive: This story is more than 10 years old.

Humor: 'The Tuscon Problem'

Academics call Tucson 'most misspelled major city' in America

A group of academics have published a study calling Tucson "easily the most misspelled major city in America," a finding they say is supported by data generated through the Google Books project.

The misspelling of "Tucson" as "Tuscon" in English-language books increased over 400% from 1960 to 2000 (see chart), said Prof. Nigel Higginbotham, the neurolinguist in charge of The Tuscon Project. "Unfortunately the Google data only cover books, but the incidence of misspellings in newspapers is almost certainly exponentially higher," adds Higginbotham.

The Jan. 8 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords thrust the city into the spotlight, with result that Tucson – and its doppelganger, Tuscon – have been making headlines across the nation and around the globe.

Predictably, Tucsonans are unimpressed with their compatriots inability to spell their city's name. "If I can remember to put an 'h' on the end of Pittsburgh, I'd think Pittsburghers could manage to put the "c" before the "s" in Tuscon," said Alma Almodovar, a longtime Tucson resident. "And don't even get me started on Albuquerque!"

Google search results return over three million Web pages for "Tuscon," even though Google asks "Did you mean Tucson?" A few of those results are for TusCon, a Tucson-based science fiction convention, but the majority are simple misspellings of Tucson.

Offenders spotted in just the last few weeks include CNN, Reuters (as if anyone can spell that), NPR, The Toronto Star, FOX News (twice) and the White House.

"The cause is fairly straightforward to identify," said Higginbotham. "English words are comprised of combinations of letters, and our fingers seek out the most frequently used combinations whenever we type. The process is similar to the predictive text function in Google's search mechanism."

"Regrettably, not enough of us take the time to review what we've typed, and some of us don't have any idea how to spell Tucson anyway," he said.

Higginbotham said he and his colleagues considered the problem from a number of angles, and decided a solution would be easier to implement "from the technology perspective rather than the neurolinguistics perspective."

In other words, rather than rewiring people's brains, they traveled to Palo Alto to meet Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

"Those guys were very receptive to hearing our problem, and although neither of them is from Tucson, they saw immediately the opportunity for implementing a technology solution for the greater good," Higginbotham explained.

"What they proposed is very simple: since Google is the portal through which nearly all of us on earth access information on the Web, Google will simply install a search and replace filter that swaps 'Tucson' for 'Tuscon.' Easy!"

Higginbotham noted that the founders of the TusCon science fiction convention would have trouble providing information about their event to Internet users, but said, "Some sacrifices have to be made."

Almodovar, when informed about the imminent implementation of The Tuscon Filter, said, "I think it's great they can do that. I sure won't miss seeing people misspell our city's name, and I'm sure my mother-in-law will be able to find something else to complain about before long."

Southern Arizona lawmakers have narrowly headed off attempts past attempts by the state legislature to force the city to change its name.

In 2010, rather than adopting a budget, lawmakers spent 42 days debating a bill that would have revoked the city's charter if it did not officially adopt "Tuscon" as its spelling.

"Even the Federal Aviation Administration knows that it should be spelled with the 's' first," one Maricopa County legislator said at the time. "That's why the airport code is 'TUS'."

"Let's follow the lead of the feds just this once," said the Republican. "It shouldn't matter that much to Tucsonians."

Ed.: Sadly for us Tucsonans, Sentinel cartoonist Roberto De Vido is known for, well,  making things up. We have been unable to confirm the existence of a neurolinguist named Nigel Higginbotham, and Google would not comment on the rumored “Tuscon Filter.” One thing Roberto didn’t make up, though: the national media continue to misspell “Tucson” on a regular basis.


Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant, writer, cartoonist and jack of many trades. The former chief of Tucson Sentinel’s East Asia Bureau, he now lives in California (make of that what you will).

“Did you mean Tucson?”

— Message accompanying results of Google Search for "Tuscon"

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