In Shakespeare’s grand historical drama Richard II, the titular king is a giant asshole. Richard is vindictive, shady, indecisive, corrupt, and totally unfit to rule a country. In the poetic words of the American Richard II, “He’s a bad hombre. SAD!” At one point during the play, Sir Stephen Bannon – um, I mean, Sir Stephen Scroop – approaches King Fuckface von Clownstick to inform him of how deeply the English rebellion runs. “White beares have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie.”
Wait. White bears? Was the English monarch so thoroughly despised that even the wild animals were taking up arms against him?
This explanation is plausible, but a few nagging questions remain. Why do the polar bears have “thin and hairless scalps”? And why are they “arming” themselves? Bears have claws. Huge intestine-extracting claws. At seven feet tall and 900 pounds, polar bears are living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. How did they organize? Can they hold town hall meetings? Etc.
Some printing context may shed a little light on these questions. Compositors used cases to hold individual letters, numbers, and punctuation while setting type. Not unlike using a keyboard today, compositors set their type without staring directly at their hands. If the E’s and D’s were sitting close enough (also like today), one letter could be “picked” by mistake. The whole Shakespearean white bears conundrum was probably nothing more than a typo. After all, if you change “beares” to “beards,” you get: “White beards have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie,” and that makes a whole lot more sense. Small printing errors can have far-reaching effects. In Shakespeare’s case, they changed a septuagenarian revolt against Richard II into an awesome but thoroughly nonsensical ursine one.
Kuwait is a Middle Eastern country smaller than New Jersey, yet so rich its rulers eat gold and shit supergold. In 1999, the country decided to use some of its wealth to print a free, state-published edition of the Koran.
This … didn’t go well.
The free Korans were printed with missing and/or misprinted verses. Which might not seem like such a serious mistake, until you remember that people take their holy books pretty seriously. To Muslims, the Koran isn’t like other books. It’s literally the word of Allah, and changing or omitting anything is basically telling God, “No, actually, we think you got this bit wrong.”
The typo immediately exploded into political turmoil. The opposition members of parliament feuded bitterly with the cabinet over the faulty Korans and accused Ahmad al-Kulaib, the Minister for Islamic Affairs, of deliberately tampering with the copies in order to “disfigure the faith” of Kuwait. As al-Kulaib faced an inevitable vote of no confidence, the Emir of Kuwait himself had to step in to dissolve the government and call a new election. That’s right, some poor clerk didn’t drag the cursor far enough when copying, and pasted a whole government into oblivion.