This time around I’ve been working on college test prep guides—placing apostrophes and fixing typos and making sure questions are numbered and aligned properly. And, on questions where test-takers are asked to answer a series of questions about an extended piece of writing (usually from literature), I have been making sure that the text quoted in the questions exactly matches that of the original passage. Which, surprisingly often, it doesn’t.
I do not blame. In addition to proofreading such questions, I’ve written a few, and I certainly know how easy it is to make this kind of error. The eye moves faster than the typing fingers can keep up, and sometimes the fingers just … leave a bit out.
What I didn’t know is that there is a word for this: parablepsis.* The term is used in the study of ancient writing to refer to the action of a scribe who in copying a text inadvertently skips (or, less often, repeats) a section, thereby introducing an error into the copy. It comes from the ancient Greek παράβλεψις, meaning to look askance: παρά (para) “beside,” and βλέπω (blepō), “to look at.” It's what happens when you look away from your task for a moment and lose your place.
In fact it turns out there is a whole raft of terms for the things scribes do wrong when hand-copying manuscripts. There’s haplography, in which letters are left out; there’s dittography, in which the scribe writes a word or phrase more than once (and who among us has has not made this mistake at at least once?). There’s homœarchon (mis-transcribing words with similar beginnings) and homœoteleuton (mis-transcribing words with similar endings). There’s metathesis (reversing letters, words, or phrases), and there’s straight up contamination (including an extraneous element, like a marginal annotation, into the copy).**
I like to think there is a subtle cognate at work here. After all, people blep too, especially when they are concentrating. Like when they’re doing needlepoint or proofreading or sorting socks, or (yes) scribing. I’ve caught myself blepping several times in the course of writing this post. (In fact, I’ve been excruciatingly aware of my own tongue the whole time—and now I bet you are too! You’re welcome!) But it is a universal—I blep, you blep, all of God’s children blep.
Still, as I cross-check the SAT questions against the original passages I sometimes think of the monks all lined up in the Scriptorium, dutifully churning out copies of the Codex Zographensis, with their little tongues sticking out of the corner of their mouths. And with each mistake I catch, each haplograph or homœoteleuton, I imagine one of the monks nudging his neighbor to snicker at a colleague, scribbling away on the next bench: “Hey, check out Eadwine! He’s really putting the blep in parablepsis!”
*Everett brought this word home from a class he’s taking on the New Testament. There are many reasons I married him, and the fact that he brings me little posies of interesting words is one.
**And that’s not getting into the deliberate things that scribes (monks in particular) did when fed up with the burdens of the transcriptive life—everything from complaints about cold weather, bad food, and their fellow monks, to criticisms of the author or translator, to grumbles about the hairiness of the parchment they were writing on. One long-suffering monk got to the end of his manuscript and added his own postscript: “Now I’ve written the whole thing. For Christ’s sake, give me a drink.” I feel ya, dude.