Note: This post was adapted from content I originally published in the August 18, 2017, edition of the Fostered Creativity newsletter.
I’ve been watching the Discovery series Manhunt: Unabomber, which bored me until we got to the third episode, “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree,” when the FBI starts analyzing the Unabomber’s manifesto to see if the way he used language could bring them any leads.
James Fitzgerald, an FBI profiler working on the case, identified several “errors” and “misspellings” in the manifesto, including the use of analyse for analyze, licence for license, wilfully for willfully, and instalment for installment.
I was watching the show with my husband, who looked at me strangely as I shouted, “Those are British spellings! Why did he use British spellings?!? I’VE SOLVED THE CASE!”
Of course, it was much more complicated than that, and the FBI ultimately decided to publish the manifesto, hoping that someone else would recognize these “misspellings” as well as the Unabomber’s other unusual word patterns and phrasings.
Although it’s true that these are British spellings, the Unabomber—later identified as Ted Kaczynski—was in fact using an outdated version of a style guide for the Chicago Tribune. He also used the familiar manual The Elements of Style while writing.
At the time, there was no name for what the FBI was doing, but Fitzgerald’s work led to the creation of a new field: forensic linguistics.
In a more recent case, John Olsson, a forensic linguistics expert, helped solve the murder of Diana Lee by observing killer David Ryan’s use of commas and spacing in sentences in fake text messages sent by Ryan warning people to stay away from the house.
It’s interesting to think that someone like me—a freelance academic editor—could have knowledge that could prove to be helpful in the pursuit of a serial killer. You never know when your editorial expertise could come in handy!