Why was the name of Uganda’s biggest city trending on Twitter Tuesday night?
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced Tuesday that California Sen. Kamala Harris will be his running mate, and social media was almost immediately flooded with misspellings of her first name. As of this writing, iPhone autocorrect does not recognize the name Kamala. It tries to replace it with Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
Shortly after the veep news broke, the term “Kampala Harris” was trending on Twitter. One of the most prominent tweets featuring the misspelling came from comedy actor Tommy Chong, of Cheech and Chong fame:
The mistake has also shown up on Facebook and iMessage. Even when you capitalize the first letter to indicate that it’s a proper noun, the autocorrect feature will still switch Kamala to Kampala.
Given the senator’s prominence, particularly during this year’s Democratic presidential primaries, it’s unclear why autocorrect has not been updated to recognize her name. Autocorrect works by checking what a user has typed in against stored dictionaries. It will also refer to language models to try to correctly interpret what the user meant to write. Autocorrect can learn from users’ preferences if they override it enough times, so presumably someone who keeps typing in Kamala will eventually be able to avoid the Kampala problem. You can also manually change autocorrect preferences or turn it off entirely in your phone’s settings.
This isn’t the first time that spelling technologies have mangled a politician of color’s name. As Slate reported in 2008, spellcheck in earlier versions of Microsoft Word and Outlook had a hard time with Barack Obama’s name during his rise to prominence. The 2003 version of Word encouraged typists to change Obama to Osama or Bema, while Outlook 2003 suggested Boatman, Agama, and Boom. Outlook also reportedly suggested Barracks for Barack. Microsoft eventually added his name to its spellcheck library in 2007, a couple months after he entered the presidential race. By then, he had been a senator for two years. (Harris, for her part, has been a senator for more than three-and-a-half years and was a presidential candidate for more than 10 months.) Firefox 3 had similar issues at the time, but Google, at least, was on top of it. What’s different in this case is that autocorrect automatically replaces the typed name with another word, while spellcheck only recommends alternatives. So users may be quickly writing a tweet and posting it without realizing that autocorrect has transmogrified Kamala into Kampala Harris at such a scale that it became a trending term.
A quick survey reveals that the iPhone’s autocorrect feature often gets the names of other government officials wrong, especially if they’re people of color. Attempt to type out Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and it’ll change Ocasio to occasion. Autocorrect also separates Sotomayor into soto mayor and changes Deval Patrick into Decal Patrick.
Harris has previously struggled to get people to say her first name correctly. She even created an ad during her 2016 Senate run in which she had children properly pronounce her name and warn against common mispronunciations. Kamala comes from the Sanskrit word for lotus.