IAN CHILLAG: I hope I'm pronouncing it right: Titivillus.
HZ: Who is that?
IAN CHILLAG: Titivillus is the typo demon.
My name is Ian Chillag. What more would you like to know?
HZ: I don't know. What do you want people to know about you in a professional sphere?
IAN CHILLAG: Oh. I hope people think of me as kind. I host a podcast called Everything is Alive. I interview inanimate objects about their lives.
I've certainly felt the effects of the demon Titivillus in my life. I've made typos. I had not, until I learned of Titivillus, known that I could blame those typos on a higher power or - is a demon or a lower power?
HZ: I think they originated when an archangel fell from heaven - Lucifer - ao I'd imagine if you're taking the conventional geography of heaven being high, then the demons would be low - but then a typing demon would probably be on the Earth's surface for maximum efficacy.
IAN CHILLAG: Well, Titivillus did - does, maybe - walk the Earth, and what he does is make scribes make errors. So a medieval scribe is doing their work, writing down what they have to in their text, probably a religious text; and Titivillus shows up and does whatever he does and suddenly there are typos in those texts.
HZ: And rather than ascribing that to medieval scribes having very tired hands due to the equipment that they use being exhausting to propel, and they were working in not the brightest light conditions, they were like, "No, it's demons."
IAN CHILLAG: Nope, it was Titivillus the typo demon.
HZ: We're talking about a demon that arrived on the scene of demonism in the 13th century.
IAN CHILLAG: Correct.
HZ: So when we say typos, we really mean handos.
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah yeah. The hando demon.
HZ: Do you ever get that thing when you're thinking of the correct spelling of a word, but you write out completely the wrong thing? Because I've noticed that more and more in myself, and now I wonder whether it's demonic possession, and there should be typing version of The Exorcist commissioned.
IAN CHILLAG: The most boring hour of The Exorcist was when she was just making typos for an hour.
Titivillus had a sack that he would fill with typographical errors.
HZ: Like a pedantic Santa!
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah! And he would bring his sack down to hell, give it to Satan, and then when you made it to Satan, all of your typos would be held against you, I guess for further punishment.
HZ: That's so unfair, because the monks that were doing the writing then were some of the few people that could write, so the odds are really stacked against them, and you would think really the people who couldn't write at all ought to share some of the burden with the monks that were writing on behalf of them.
HZ: Do you think it's fair that people were punished for the actions of a devil? Because the devil was sneaking in and creating the handos and leaving out words, inverting words and stuff - so that really feels like a trap to recruit more people to hell.
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah. Titivillus - it was not a fair thing he was doing.
HZ: I guess fairness isn't really part of the demonic system of justice.
IAN CHILLAG: Well I just think about what if you went your whole life and you died and then you were judged and then you ended up in hell. And the guy next to you is like, "oh I murdered nine people," and you were like, "Oh, I accidentally spelled Nebuchadnezzar wrong." You know? And you're both being whipped by flaming cats o’ nine tails.
HZ: Do you think he has different levels of punishment for the typo people?
IAN CHILLAG: I hope that that is the gentlest circle of hell for the typo people. It’s not Hell, it's a separate error Hell.
HZ: Yeah. You could hear the more punishing parts of Hell and smell them. But you're not physically being pained by them.
I suppose the errors were a real problem given that, at the time of Titivillus's invention, texts were getting copied and if there was an error in one there would then be an error copied into loads of them. So your little error could be just spread - and then stick in history. There are a lot of examples of scribal errors becoming a thing that remains through the generations; but some scribal errors would radically change the meaning of a sentence. So perhaps the demon was just trying to be conscientious.
IAN CHILLAG: Well we talked about on on my show the wicked Bible which was in the 1600s. Which was a printing error where they left the word 'not' out of "thou shalt not commit adultery." And so there were several hundred copies of the Bible that told people not only that they could cheat on their spouses but that God was commanding them to do so.
HZ: Wow, that's powerful stuff. Is there any evidence for people acting on that?
IAN CHILLAG: Once they figured out the error, they burned as many of them as they can and only a few survived, and so they're available for purchase for one hundred thousand dollars which seems like a lot of money.
HZ: It does.
IAN CHILLAG: But if what you want is to cheat on your spouse and you want permission to do so.
HZ: "Bible made me do it."
IAN CHILLAG: It's God's will.
HZ: I suppose at the time, they could have reframed it as being a test where it's like, "Well, you read that but do you really think that was what God would want for you? You've misinterpreted God. Go to hell."
IAN CHILLAG: Oh. That is a mean trick. “Do as I do, not as I say.”
HZ: Or just "do what I say. And also the things I don't say - you have to guess. Either way, it's curtains for you."
IAN CHILLAG: You think about the commandments coming down and ending up on stone tablets.
HZ: It's amazing there weren't typos on those; writing on stone is extremely difficult.
IAN CHILLAG: Maybe there were. Maybe it was originally "Thou shalt commit adultery." The 'not' ended up there by accident.
Titivillus also did something else, I guess when he wasn't making others make errors: Titivillus would wander around finding errors.
HZ: Aah, the worst. I used to be like that. Sorry Mum.
IAN CHILLAG: Before there was your email box to write into and tell you about your errors, Titivillus would walk around church services, when a priest would make an error, quote scripture incorrectly. Mispronounced, mumbled or skipped words of the church service too were taken to hell to be counted against you. Mumbling! Titivillus expects a lot from us. As I understand it: errors in the communication of scripture, but also just gossip. He would just find, from what I read, women gossiping - he would put the gossip in his sack, bring it to Satan, where would await the women when they went to hell.
HZ: I bet Satan checked out all of those pieces of gossip before doing the hell condemnation.
IAN CHILLAG: It really was just a way to get the good gossip.
HZ: Do you know if Titivillus was an international demon?
IAN CHILLAG: Did he speak every language?
HZ: Did he go and steal everyone's gossip from their religious services? Or is this a Christian demon?
IAN CHILLAG: If you have the magical powers, that part of it does seem great, that you would have the freedom to wander the Earth, possibly invisibly, and listen to other people's gossip to know everything that was going on. Yeah, I might not just go to church if if I had that power. Honestly it seems like kind of a fun job.
There are paintings in later medieval art and later medieval art showing Titivillus in church collecting not just gossip but also trivia.
HZ: For quizzes?
IAN CHILLAG: Well, the idea that pub trivia was created by a demon from Lucifer: the whole story is kind of beginning to add up.
HZ: I'm now seeing Jeopardy through whole new eyes. But also who decides what is trivia? Some things could seem inconsequential to Titivillus, who has a rarified demonic existence, but to other people it might be of everyday importance. Where did I put my socks? Titivillus doesn't care but you might have very cold feet and need to know.
IAN CHILLAG: I mean, I think cold feet are just generally hard for one who resides in hell to understand. That's one thing you don't have to worry about in error hell as you're licked by flames surrounding you and your flesh torn from your body by demons only to be replaced again the next day.
HZ: They might have a special cold hell for people who really don't like it. For people who chose to live in Florida, say.
IAN CHILLAG: The rest of your body is burning, but your feet are so cold. And there are no slippers in hell, all the slippers have gone to heaven.
I actually found - I don't really know what this is, but it seems like a prayer that a scribe would make to ward off Titivillus's influence: "Oh Titivillus, stay thy hand, and make this at my Lord's command. And if they should an error see, I pray they will blame you, not me."
HZ: It's very rhymey, so I reckon it would work.
IAN CHILLAG: There's also apparently a Latin and - a 15th century English. Yeah a number of - we hear the words of Titivullus. Can you read Old English?
HZ: Yeah. "I am a pure devil and my name is Titivillus. I must each day bring my master a thousand pokes" - that would be sacks - "full of failings and of negligences in syllables and words." A thousand sacks.
IAN CHILLAG: So not one sack with a thousand errors, but a thousand sacks?
HZ: Well one thing that I have read is that Titivillus had to fill his sack a thousand times and then take it to the devil, which doesn't seem practical at all. How do you fill a sack a thousand times and then carry it? It would just be leaking errors everywhere.
IAN CHILLAG: So this was just his job? That was his error quota, was a thousand sacks' worth.
HZ: It's like you're supposed to be collecting litter from this municipality and once you've got a thousand sacks report to your boss.
IAN CHILLAG: Were his two duties - was he just kind of cheating at his job that the Lucifer said to him, "I'm gonna need a thousand sacks of errors," and he's short of his quota. So then he starts through his magic demon powers forcing people to make errors so that he can just get a sack full and get home to the demon wife?
HZ: I absolutely think so. And also spelling wasn't fixed then so maybe Titivillus contributed to this idea of fixing spelling so that then you could just persecute a lot more people, and fill those sacks and go home early.
IAN CHILLAG: When you picture that, Titivillus at work, how do you picture him?
HZ: Titivillus seems to be officeless, so like a travelling worker. I wonder whether to Titivillus was a full employee or just like a contractor. What's the job security for a demon?
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah, I mean, the printing press hurt no one as much as Titivillus.
HZ: I'm picturing Titivillus is kind of nimble, but not necessarily very well dressed. Titivillus might be wearing like a quite washed out Ed Hardy T-shirt that he'd stolen from someone and board shorts and flip flops.
IAN CHILLAG: Poor Titivillus.
HZ: I don't know, I feel like he's chosen that. And then maybe some stainage from the printing ink.
IAN CHILLAG: I'd like to imagine that every time he found an error, he was just like, "Well actually it's this." And then he took the error back to Satan.
HZ: But also in what form is Titivillus taking the error?
IAN CHILLAG: That's - yeah, there's something mystical about the sack that it's hard to understand.
HZ: Is he taking duplicates? Does he have a scanner?
IAN CHILLAG: If he's not taking duplicates then he is removing errors from the earth.
HZ: Which is a sort of thoughtful cleanup job perhaps.
IAN CHILLAG: Do you think Titivillus chose the name because it itself was kind of hard to spell? That's 10 errors for the sack right there.
HZ: Yeah I think the double L could trip people up; I think V I - a lot of people would think it was an O or a U, and he's like, "Haha, that's a few hundred more errors for my sack." Also why a sack? Why not a system of folders.
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah. When was the folder invented.
HZ: Great question. It could have been a biblical misprint that the Ten Commandments were on stone tablets and not in a folder.
Do you think things have changed now with the way that a demon manifests itself in typing is to insert apostrophes where apostrophes don't belong? Particularly on shop signs.
IAN CHILLAG: Are you suggesting that autocorrect is Titivillus at work?
HZ: That is now my thesis. It's the only way I can make autocorrect make sense.
IAN CHILLAG: You know what would be fun would be to call Apple Support and tell them that the demon Titivillus was in your phone and kept changing ‘your' to ‘you’re'.
HZ: I wonder when things changed where just blaming things on demons no longer cut it.
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah, yeah. There was probably a point in history where you could pretty credibly blame things on demons. But now…
HZ: What was the point do you think of Titivillus? In both of Titivillus's jobs. With the church one was Titivillus just like the boogeyman of if you got bored in church or chatted with people?
IAN CHILLAG: And also I think communicating that there was not flexibility in the scripture because it was also if you are ministering and you read a line wrong that goes in the sack. And so yeah, I think it enforces that there is not interpretation or flexibility here.
HZ: And yet it's one of the most interpreted texts of all time.
IAN CHILLAG: Yes. Yes.
HZ: That also lends itself to interpretation because parts of it are not compatible with other parts of it. So you have to somehow reconcile yourself to those in a way that is probably quite individual.
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah. What does it say really about the time of Titivillus that someone obsessed with grammar was considered to be a demon sent from Lucifer?
HZ: That seems appropriate to me now, given a lot of the stuff that I get in my inbox. And Twitter mentions. But on the other hand, what does it say about the god and demon system that that's one of the things that they would concentrate on at the time?
IAN CHILLAG: Yeah, there are a lot of things that, if I was in charge of the universe, I would probably leave alone.
HZ: You just think, "Choose your battles. Let this slide." That's how I've developed my attitude to language since doing this show, just a lot less anger about minor gripes.
IAN CHILLAG: “You know what, if you use the wrong 'there', that's OK.”
HZ: It's fine, I'll probably get it from context.
IAN CHILLAG: Love whoever you want. I'm also gonna allow that now.
HZ: And I also think I was that demon for a long time especially when I was a proofreader.
IAN CHILLAG: You were possessed.
I do like the idea that the god or gods - that their concern is not our existence and whether we live in harmony but just whether we're spelling things right. That's all they care about.
HZ: Yeah. And what is right? That's a human construct. It's not an absolute thing. God didn't create the earth and then create correct spellings for every language and then created humans to use them. The humans created the language.
IAN CHILLAG: I feel like that idea really - Titivillus would be in crisis.
HZ: Ian Chillag is the creator of the very funny and beautiful Radiotopia sibling podcast Everything Is Alive, unlike any other show I’ve ever heard. And stick around for today’s Minillusionist, in which Ian reveals a brilliant way to make money - or to lose money, depending.
IAN CHILLAG: Think about the sack as like there's some analogy with a swear jar where this thing you're trying not to do but then you have to do that then happens maybe because a demon made you do it and then you have this repository of every time you did it.
IAN CHILLAG: We have a bad joke policy in our home.
HZ: As in you should make them we shouldn't make them?
IAN CHILLAG: It's actually in our wedding ketubah that we have to pay each other one dollar every time we make a bad joke.
HZ: And you've be married for about a year at this point? What are the amounts of stacked up?
IAN CHILLAG: I've paid a lot of money.
HZ: And your wife?
IAN CHILLAG: A few dollars.
HZ: But then who's to judge whether the joke's bad?
IAN CHILLAG: It's clear. There's never never doubt. I occasionally actually will Venmo her a dollar in anticipation of what I'm about to say. It's actually kind of great because we do it through Venmo and you have a Venmo history that goes back as long as you've used Venmo.
HZ: Do you put a note with the payments of what the joke is?
IAN CHILLAG: Usually just the word in the joke that was punned. I can tell you what they are.
HZ: Yes please.
IAN CHILLAG: Okay. It's just one word in each of these. I don't know what this joke was: ‘agweement’. The word ‘agreement’ but with a W. ‘Explotion’, which is the word ‘explosion’ but with ‘lotion’ at the end.
HZ: I'm getting a strong visual from that.
IAN CHILLAG: I'm sure like a bottle of lotion spilled and I called it an explotion.
HZ: That's a useful portmanteau. I think she should give you that dollar back.
IAN CHILLAG: Occasionally there is a three thousand dollar payment. The policy is one dollar but then in a particularly bad joke.
HZ: Have you actually had to pay up the three thousand dollars?
IAN CHILLAG: No. We typically decline the payment. ‘Femail’ where male is spelled like mail.
HZ: Yeah. I think there's some magazine called that in Britain. So they should be paying your wife a lot of money for every back issue.
IAN CHILLAG: Anyway, I recommend this policy in your home.
HZ: If you have enough dollars at your disposal you could really ruin someone's life.
IAN CHILLAG: But also, in the right relationship it can be a major source of income for both of you.
The Allusionist is a member of Radiotopia from PRX, a colelctive of the best podcasts on the interwaves. Find all the shows at radiotopia.fm.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
decoct, verb: to prepare by boiling; to extract the substance by boiling; to boil; to devise. That last meaning is a change of pace.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with thanks to Ian Chillag for introducing me to Titivillus. The music is by Martin Austwick. Find AllusionistShow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; and all the episodes, additional information about each topic, transcripts of the episodes, live show listings - all of that, all of the allusional things, can be found at theallusionist.org.