Searching for a book review recently, I came across a web page with a pirated copy of the book, alongside a reviewer’s name that seemed to have been automatically censored:
Compare the censored name with its original form on the back of my paperback copy of the same book:
Googling “Philip K. censored” brings up a rash of hits: mostly forums and file-sharing pages. In this age of robots on Mars, nanobees on tumours, and Samuel Johnson on Twitter, the name of one of the twentieth century’s most gifted science fiction writers is not reproduced on certain web pages because it’s also a slang term for male genitalia.
Some people prefer only the most clinical terms to be used to refer to certain anatomical parts (sexual and excretory) and biological acts (ditto). They find slang synonyms inherently offensive, even taboo.
Between the attitudes of prudes and porn stars there is much middle ground. Avoiding certain words in some contexts, such as around children, is surely sensible. Many people view profanities as vulgarisms to be avoided; this too is uncontroversial.
But these words can flat out appal. So their prevalence and popularity in insults and slang expressions causes no end of outrage. Presumably their close association with sex and pornography gets them placed on lists of “hot” terms for filters that remove the words or replace them with what are considered acceptable alternatives.
Automatic filtering is common in online forums. Far from being lawless frontiers of “foul” language, many internet chat areas have a policy of filtering, replacing, or giving warnings over the use of sexual swear words and various taboo terms, even such unlikely ones as jobby jobby plop plop. The Something Awful forums replace fuck with gently caress and damn with drat for the eyes of readers who are unregistered or not logged in. Such tactics help keep the forums relatively search- and family-friendly; they also lead to technical workarounds and plagues of asterisks. Sometimes humans reprogram the scrupulous bots.
Automatic filtering might help to reduce abuse and weed out porn-related spam, but its mindlessness has obvious drawbacks: see for example the Scunthorpe problem. It also produces what’s known as the clbuttic mistake, which occurs when coding problems cause filters to mangle innocuous words, or even famous names.
A notorious example occurred when the American athlete Tyson Gay won a sprint, and the “Christian news service” OneNewsNow reinterpreted an AP headline as “Homosexual eases into 100 final at Olympic trials”. I won’t even begin to arrange the levels of absurdity here. Elsewhere, non-computer-programmed canteen staff at Flintshire County Council changed Spotted Dick on its menu to Spotted Richard or Sultana Sponge, apparently to avoid the “childish comments” of a few customers.
I find this all very strange and interesting.
Word magic is reported widely in anthropological literature, and it is not just the preserve of minority cultures. The nauseating quality of moist is quite infamous, and will be explored here at a later date. Modern Ireland has its new and ridiculous blasphemy law: word magic writ legal.
Superstition begets aversion, and the language is awash with diluted expletives — like the Irish favourite feck. This is a minced oath, like frick and frak. These terms lose in force what they gain in public acceptability. Newspapers still have no consensus on how to convey the word fuck, reflecting the mixed attitudes of their readers to its irrational power. In recent years, however, this notoriously vulgar word has received substantial academic attention.
Which brings me back to the book mentioned in the first paragraph: Quantum Psychology by Robert Anton Wilson. Despite its title and the inevitable datedness of some of its ideas and language, it contains ample wit and good sense. (An impressed New Scientist reviewer thought Wilson was a pseudonym for some “great physicist”.) One chapter is about how the comedian George Carlin made legal history with the “seven words you can never say on television”. Wilson follows the logic to wonder: ‘why isn’t the word “duck” 75% “dirty”?’