Stumbling on crappiness

Adam Smith

The philosopher and economist Adam Smith was ahead of his time in many ways I’m sure, but the following quote from his Theory of Moral Sentiments surprised me nonetheless:

… the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the motorway…

Britain was pretty precocious back then in all things industrial and technological of course. Even so, did it really build its first motorway as early as 1759 – well before the car was invented? And how did Smith manage to use a term that according to etymologists wasn’t coined until 1903?

In other words: what was going on here?

Crappy editing, that’s what. I read about the roadside beggar in Daniel Gilbert’s (excellent and funny) Stumbling on Happiness. But when I looked up the quote in the original work, I found that the word Smith actually used was highway. Nothing puzzling there: it has a venerable history going back all the way to Old English (heahweg).

So this must be what happened. Smith wrote the word highway. Gilbert copied the word highway. A. Knopf Publishers of New York published the word highway (I checked). But then Harper Press of London decided to make Gilbert, an American, toe the Commonwealth line, by not only changing every theater into theatre and every color into colour, but also substituting bonnet for every hood, pavement for every sidewalk – and apparently, motorway for every highway. In one fell swoop, searching and replacing without regard to context.

Now I’m looking forward to reading about ‘little red riding bonnet’ and ‘pride coming before the autumn’.

Have you read similar ‘trans-Atlantic translation’ errors? I’d love to hear!