What the authorised function of a printers' devil is, we are not clearly informed. To wait about in a hopeful and yet unhelpful way, to drip with ink, to annoy - these are some of his habits. It may be humbly suggested, though, that his chief power is to cause misprints. How he does so it is not for an outsider to say; whether by clouding the printer's mind or by jerking the machine, who knows? The fact is, though, that misprints, some of them blatant, ugly, and obvious, others insidious and specious, do appear in the most surprising places. Who could possibly be responsible for them, if not the printer's own devil.
The obvious kind of misprint, in which the type is somehow pied and the reader is suddenly confronted with a word like pxvtur, is harmless enough. One simply passes by on the other side. There is one standard and unpronounceable group of letters that is apt to appear at the end of a paragraph. Printers can tell you about it. It is caused be the printers' devil having things all his own way on the linotype for a few seconds: it is probably his swear word, and our failure to pronounce it is fortunate. There are other misprints of the same kind, ugly enough, but so quickly recognised that they also are harmless. Books published soon after the war were subject to them. Some French books published before the stabilisation of the franc were faulty enough to make the reader's reason totter at the end of every line, where the printer - or his devil - repeatedly printed words from the close of line two in the line before, and vice versa. No serious harm was done, though, for the reader was at least aware that something was the matter, and he could, in addition to the pleasure of reading the complex sentences of Marcel Proust, enjoy a little mental puzzle over the transposition of those words. Hardly fair to the aesthetic quality of Proust, you will say, but considered as a deed of a printers' devil, this disturbance was so slight that one can almost praise it. Only the crudest kind of devil will let you see that he is misleading you.
It is the disguised misprint that is dangerous. When the trail of the serpent is visible all over a landscape, we know where we are; but when the printers' devil has made a visitation upon a paragraph and left it, apparently, a smiling Eden still we are his prey. It is tardy that the inspired enemy does anything so crude as to insert a negative or to omit one: but his attentions often have that effect, yet leave the sentence flowing as naturally as if it had been so conceived by the writer. In a notebook I have collected a few of these particularly devastating specimens of the misprinter's subtle art. The specimens are not amusing: they have none of the racy charm possessed by the howler or the spoonerism: they are simply deplorable.
Bald or Bold?
Here is one of the very simplest. The writer of an article was regretting the limitations of the modern neat-and-complete flat, from which all the impedimenta of living seemed to be excluded, its inhabitants "apparently preferring this balder kind of existence". The printers' devil called it a "bolder" kind of existence, wiping out the whole argument by a single letter. Again, in a recent novel, came an innocent looking sentence in a passage that went towards building a certain character: the sentence dealt with "Boyd's enforced friendliness," not such a bad phrase for a certain type of human association, except that it was totally opposed to the rest of the description. Thinking it over - though for a reader to think it over is against the printers' devil's rules - you could only feel sure that what the author had written was "unforced friendliness." That was a misprint of great wiliness.
To bring about either of those effects the operator had to alter a letter, but he can manage by the alteration of something even less, a mere comma, or dash, or point. It is not enough, for his purpose, to leave the mark of punctuation right out, for the reader's eye instinctively puts one in - yes, even into a lawyer's document if it be it all intelligible. It is necessary for the imp to insert a false stop in some vital place. Even if he fails to bring about an entire collapse of the passage he may at least hope for an effect of confusion that will be ascribed wholly to the author. There is a famous passage in "Ultima Thule" in which a comma does all the misprinting that it could hope to accomplish with its modest powers. The German baron, a naturalist and musician, who has come on a visit to Richard Mahony, in a bush township, is talking to the little son whom he has stirred by Schumann's music. Cuffy jumps about crying, 'I will say music, too, when I am big' ' but his friend answers:
"Ja, ja, but so easy is it not to shake the music out of the sleeve!... Here is lying" - and the baron waved his arm all round him - "a great, new music hid. He who makes it, he will put into it the thousand feelings awoken in him by this emptiness and space, this desolation; with always the serene blue heaven above, and these pale, sad, so grotesque trees that weep and rave. He puts the golden wattle in it, when it blooms and reeks, and this melancholy bush, oh, so old, so old, and this silence as if death that nothing stirs. No, birdleins will sing in his musik."
A Case for Controversy.
Well, there is the intrusive comma, between "No" and ' birdleins." The whole passage is controversial in theme, and when its argument is complicated by the presence of a misprint, you have all the material for a knotty passage that will engage the apparatus criticus of scholars with variorum editions in centuries to come. You see, the question is that of the silence of our bush. What remains most in our minds, the silence of our plains, on which trees have been destroyed and the birds banished, or the mountain forests and gullies of our vast coastal fringe, where birds sing, not only for a season as in Europe, but literally all the year round? Again, in this passage, is it the author speaking her own opinion, or is she content to utter the outlook of a European 50 years ago? So we wonder and discuss, but while the book is still fairly new we can simply leap over the misprint. The Baron meant that there would be "no birdleins" - may our grey harmonious thrush and all her ravishing cousins forgive him! Let this be put on record as the true reading, though the comma has been wrongly inserted in both the English edition and the reset American edition. So it becomes clear that printers' devils are not hampered in their movements: they can cross the Atlantic, they are as mobile as Puck.
There is again another kind of printers' devil very hard to endure: this is the self-righteous type. The alterations made by this evil genius are made with an ostentation of zeal for someone's welfare or reputation, the individual being probably either an author or a publisher. Thus a poet who uses the word "mystery," intending it for a dissyllable with a tremolo, will find it printed "myst'ry"; the printers' devil would assure him that it was thus rendered more "poetical." At times certain authors have had fixed ideas of spelling which have been at variance with the convictions of this all-too-learned, all-too-hidebound variety of hypercritical imp. All through Meredith's novels the e is retained in words like judgement: he liked it so, and he succeeded in bringing it off. But then Meredith was a publishers' reader, and he would know how to lord it over whole legions of printer's devils if necessary. Other authors are less successful. ln a recent essay Mr. Hilaire Belloe complains that it is almost impossible for an author to follow his own notions of spelling: "if you do you are in for lifelong war with the printers. For 40 years have I now attempted most firmly to fix and root the right phrase 'an historian' into the noblest pages of English but the bastard 'a historian' is still fighting for his miserable life, and may yet survive." One may demur, not to Mr. Belloc's facts of experience, but to his theology. The guilty person was hardly a printer: more likely a printers' devil had tampered with his modestly noblest English.
First published in The Argus, 4 October 1930
[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]