Before Barack Obama moved into the White House, he was just another autocorrect joke. Microsoft Word 2003 gently suggested that typists might mean “boatman” and “Osama” when spelling out “Obama,” and early versions of Word 2007 did the same. The president later made it into Word’s dictionary, meaning that the program now recognizes his name as a regular English word. But other than the leader of the free world, who do tech companies choose to include in their autocorrect dictionaries, particularly on smartphones and tablets? How do they keep their dictionaries up-to-date with current events, trends, and rising celebrities?
To understand this question, a short primer on autocorrect might be helpful. In 1993, before anyone had a smartphone (or even a “dumb” phone, for that matter), Microsoft rolled out a new feature of its word processing: autocorrect, a program that corrected typos by guessing what words users meant to type. A couple of years later, a small group of programmers started working on what would later become T-9, the predictive software originally used on phones with a simple numeric keyboard (T-9 stands for "Text on 9 Keys"). These programmers started out with a completely different goal: helping people with disabilities use technology to communicate more easily, since typing on small keyboards was challenging for people with limited motor control. They soon realized their invention was useful for a much broader audience of texters. Their company, Tegic, became known for providing word-prediction software for most handheld devices, evolving along with the phone as most models ditched the traditional numeric keypads for QWERTY keyboards.