Hatred of Hippocrates? The rise of a broken meme

The Internet produces strange phenomena. I would never have dreamed that millions of people would argue over the colour of a dress, for example.

Similarly I would never have dreamed that huge numbers of people would propagate an obvious malapropism. But search Twitter, or use any regular search engine like Google, for hate hippocrates, and step back in amazement.

hippocratesDig through a few of those tweets and other snippets, and you will quickly realise that what almost all of those people actually mean is that they “hate hypocrisy” or “hate hypocrites”, and probably have never heard of Hippocrates at all. This spreading Internet meme apparently about the ‘father’ of modern medicine is actually just propagating error – nothing more than a pervasive malapropism.

How Hippocrates has been resurrected in this bizarre way is also fairly obvious: it is what Ben Zimmer and other linguists on Language Log term a Cupertino, an erroneous substitution by automated spell-checking. These folk are starting to spell hypocrisy or hypocrites with the letters hippo, and the word offered or auto-completed is Hippocrates. We should perhaps be grateful that it is not hippopotamus, which would be bound to cause much coffee to be splurted out at computer displays, even the occasional dropped tablet.

Here though is a worrying thought: as language change is driven by language usage, could we in time actually see the word hypocrisy or hypocrites supplanted by hippocrates?

Thanks to Christopher Phin, whose tweet (impeccably correctly spelled, of course) drew my attention to this phenomenon, and who correctly suggested that the intended word may in most cases have been hypocrites not hypocrisy.