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46 million of Australia’s new $50 notes have been printed with a typo, the Reserve Bank has confirmed

Who's responsibility was this?

Typo found on millions of new Australian $50 notes

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has confirmed the existence of a typo on Australia’s new $50 note, with 46 million affected notes currently in circulation. The redesigned $50 note was released in October last year and integrates several new technologies designed to prevent counterfeiting and improve ease of recognition.

The typo is found on the serial side of the note, which features a portrait of the first female member of an Australian parliament, Edith Cowan. Above Cowan’s right shoulder are microprint excerpts of her maiden speech to Western Australian Parliament.

The sentence with the error in it reads: “It is a great [responsibility] to be the only woman here, and I want to emphasise the necessity which exists for other women being here.” However, the word “responsibility” is incorrectly spelled “responsibilty” – without the third “i” – and appears as such three times.

The typo on the new $50 note which misspells "responsibility"
The typo on the new $50 note which misspells “responsibility”

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the error first came to the attention of the RBA via an email from a member of the public back in December. But it wasn’t until May this year that the error was publicised, when an anonymous tipster alerted radio stations to its existence.

So how did it end up in the design? The RBA claims it provided the correct spelling to Note Printing Australia (NPA) in December 2016. According to a report into the error from NPA, dated January 11 this year, the design software used “has no copy-paste mechanism and no spelling or grammar check. The text was manually typed in and misspelt at this point.” Without knowing the technical capabilities of the software, it’s difficult to believe that the error was typed incorrectly three times.

But then the banknote went through a number of review phases involving inspections by the printers, banknote quality teams, the designer, and an independent designer. How was the typo overlooked by so many people?

New $50 note (serial side)
New $50 note (serial side)

The answer may lie in a phenomenon known as typoglycemia, which is the ability to understand words when the the first and last letters are stable, but the intermediate letters are scrambled (or, in this case, missing). To gvie yuo an eaxplme, yuo sohuld be albe to raed tihs sntenece rtaehr esaliy dseptie teh msispeillgns.

It works because the brain does not read every individual letter, but rather reads words as whole units. It uses prior knowledge and experience and applies it to the context of what is being said to fill in the blanks (the de-arranged letters) and predict what is about to come. It’s a function of the brain that allows us to read easily and at speed, and it works so well that we skim over typos from time to time. Presumably, this is how all of those who reviewed the note overlooked the error.

The other possible explanation is that the typo was planted deliberately to trap counterfeit manufacturers. An inattentive operator would supposedly have reproduced the word with the correct spelling, thereby betraying the note’s illegitimacy. Of course, this low-tech security feature would only have remained effective for as long as the spelling variation remained undisclosed.

The RBA has no plans to recall the banknotes as the typo does not affect their legal tender status. The error will be corrected in the next print run scheduled for production and circulation towards the end of this year.