Do Profanity Filters Dream of Philip K. Dick?

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:

Stan Carey - Philip K. censored

Compare the censored name with its original form on the back of my paperback copy of the same book:

Stan Carey - Philip K. Dick quote cr

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.

Dick himself might well have been amused and even inspired by these prudish artificial-unintelligence bots, and he was not averse to playing around with his own name, but that’s beside the point.

Terry Gilliam - Monty Python fig leaf crSome 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.

Spotted dickAutomatic 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”?’

Stan Carey - ducklings in Cork

[image sources: Spotted dick, fig leaf; photo of ducklings is mine, taken in a park in Cork]
[Now shared at Bookslut]

25 Responses to Do Profanity Filters Dream of Philip K. Dick?

  1. Fran says:

    Fascinating. And you put so many interesting links in to look up. Thanks.

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    Very Strange and interesting, indeed, Stan.

    And more and more annoying. Moderate “political correctness” is a fine thing; a drug that helps to keep conversations / disputes healthy.
    However, like it is with any drug: Too much of PC yields unpleasant effects.
    The best antivenom to avoid a pandemia: Those who are not infected, whose senses therefore are still inside their heads, must – whenever necessary – call a spade a spade, i.e. tell those poor souls who suffer from Binge Pcing what they are: “Idiots”.
    If that does not help, well: then the invalids may receive the higher dosage, such as “fecking idiots” (outside Ireland: “fucking idiots”).
    In this sense: The peace of the night.

  3. Stan says:

    Fran: You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting. Have fun following the leads!

    Sean: All things in moderation, including moderation. When lines of conflict are drawn, arguments become entrenched by extremists on both sides, and opponents’ respective frames of reference can shift towards the irrational, as if by gravity. It becomes more important to “win” than to be “right”, to play fair, or to make sense. Attempts at compromise and genuine dialogue can be interpreted as weakness.

    By the way, the phrase fucking idiots is plenty popular in Ireland. Feck is a common variant usually used in a light-hearted way or context; but when emphasis or coarseness is required, a stronger form takes over. In the TV comedy Father Ted, fup was introduced when feck fell short!

  4. Fiona says:

    Great post. Was musing on such myself recently, and how such words get their weight, or can be stripped of it (See Ms Greer on the now hilariously termed “c” word that can still silence a room).

  5. Neil in Chicago says:

    There’s a weird, circular irony that this is in reference to Wilson’s work. I’m sure he would laugh, and on request could extemporize for an hour or two.

  6. I suppose the problem arises when you have a word that has a slang and a non-slang meaning, like ‘Dick’, or ‘ass’. Whereas ‘fuck’, ‘shit’ etc. are purely conceived as vulgarisms; they have no real non-profane meaning. By the way, ‘clbuttic’ is brilliant!
    ‘Why isn’t the word “duck” 75% “dirty”?’ Because of what it refers to, I would buttume. Context is everything (something computer programs are probably not aware of). It’s never about the words themselves; a word is simply a descriptive tool. Stephen Fry once made a great comment about words; the reason the word ‘stone’ exists (to take one example) is to prevent us from having to carry one around all the time and take it out every time we need to refer to stones (“There was a lot of … um, these things … on the beach where I walked.”). I personally dislike excessive swearing, and think it’s largely pointless in text unless you’re trying to prove something, but that’s just me..
    (Sorry about the overuse of the word ‘word’ above. It was unavoidable…)

  7. […] points to an interesting piece on profanity filters and how they’re fucking up Philip K […]

  8. Stan says:

    Fiona: Thank you. It is peculiar how much baggage a word can accrue. There seems to be a strong human tendency to confuse things with words, and to fuse words with their subjective connotations. Levels of abstraction become very muddled! I considered writing about the example you mention but I decided against it, though it’s a good example of a word with a pronounced Atlantic divide in terms of offensiveness.

    Neil: There sure is, and I’m sure he would. He’d probably dig up a slew of other weird connections, too, all of them worth an extended aside.

    Doubtful: Regarding slang and non-slang: it depends on what the problem is; I touched on several, without coming to many definite conclusions! I don’t agree that a word is “simply a descriptive tool”; once words are introduced to human nervous systems, as they inevitably are, they get transmuted into something partly organic. They are still strings of letters, but — to borrow an old phrase — they are made flesh, and they occupy intangible spaces in our minds. Yes, we use them to order the world, but we all use them in slightly (and sometimes not so slightly) different ways, even the ones with seemingly unambiguous meanings. It is easy to imagine a world (using Professor Farnsworth’s What-If machine) in which “duck” carries the same potential for scandal and offence that “fuck” does in ours. Wilson’s question was only 75% facetious.

    Richard: Yes. And Randy Sodd, etc.

  9. Older says:

    No! We do not feel sorry for Dick Armey! On the contrary, we are grateful to him for having provided us with a virtually perfect joke/pun with which to refer to the people he mobilizes in the service of his, alas, offensive ideas.

  10. I can imagine a world where the word ‘duck’ (or ‘dinosaur’) would be as offensive as ‘fuck’, but the offense would come from what it describes, not from the word itself. One could, as Wilson does, argue such a case with ‘cunt’/’runt’ (or ‘punt’ or ‘hunt’ or ‘shunt’), but it’s what the word refers to and the baggage it carries with it (one cannot imagine that Twenty Major et al would replace it with ‘coconut’, which is just as meaningless in the phrase “Brian Cowen is a total and utter … “, and still have the same intended effect). Words do have power, but for me that power can only come from what they describe in the actual world. I must read the rest of your links tomorrow; I’ve had a long day and my brain hurts (I’ve a coconut of a headache!)

  11. Stan says:

    Doubtful: the offence might originate, and derive in large part, from what a word describes or described; but the word itself becomes a source of scandal (or other effect), despite being a mere typographical squiggle. Why else would a newspaper use an asterisk or three to print “fuck” but leave “copulate” unchanged?

    Rather than words carrying baggage, connotations, associations, etc., it is people who impose these layers of meanings on words. They are psychological and cultural complications. A nonsense word can be used in a certain way or in a certain context such that it attains power and subjective meanings. A word such as unicorn might have a powerful effect on a child, but it describes nothing that exists “in the actual world”.

    But I haven’t thought about this systematically, and I need another mug of tea, so I might have to return to the subject later! I hope your headache has cleared.

  12. I would agree that it’s a very large topic indeed; I would imagine that investiagting the fundamental nature of language and meaning is something that one could devote ones whole life to! I would say, though, that even a nonsense word can be descriptive: the fact that what it describes exists only in the imagination rather than in reality (which in itself cannot be separated from our perception of it, a perception which is largely constructed through language. Or something like that; again, this is something that one could write a thesis on…)does not make it any less descriptive.
    Oh dear, I feel that headache coming on again. Perhaps we can take this up again when I’m a little less busy (whenever that may be!)…

  13. Apologies for the errors in the above. “Investiagting” indeed!

  14. Stan says:

    ‘the fundamental nature of language and meaning is something that one could devote ones whole life to’

    Yes, and still only scratch the surface. Our sense organs and minds have limits beyond which we can only guess wildly, flap our hands, or resort to other modes of expression. If there are turtles (or holons, to use Koestler’s term) all the way down, or in, they soon surpass the point for which we have names or even useful concepts. Words help us organise the things in the world, but nested inside each denomination is a misleading categorisation that doesn’t seem to exist in nature.

    Hmm. Before I am tempted to waffle any more about this, maybe we could agree to take it up over a pot of tea some day. (Eventually I hope to incorporate an editing function for comments. In the meantime, no apologies are required or expected for typos!)

  15. Actually, I’d rather talk about the word “bot”, which you mention in passing. :-)

    Back in the late nineties, I remember thinking introspectively about the word “bot”, and how, to me, it brought to mind a particular type of robot, rather than being simply an abbreviated form of the same word. In particular, I felt, a robot qualifying for bothood must be:

    (a) Small. Big robots are not bots.
    (b) Mobile. Robots bolted to the ground are not bots.
    (c) Dedicated to a specific purpose. General purpose robots, like most of them in science fiction, are not bots.
    (d) Metaphorically if not literally conformant to the above criteria. Internet bots are metaphorically mobile, for example, insofar as the Internet is metaphorically a place.

    That was in the late nineties. Probably the word “bot” is more strongly associated with metaphorical robots in software now than it was a decade ago, and I don’t know whether the above criteria seem applicable for someone considering the matter for the first time in 2009.

  16. Stan says:

    Dragon: “Bot” is worth a blog post by itself — one for the Outer Hoard, perhaps! Your criteria for bothood are interesting, but they seem arbitrary: why, in your world, can’t a bot be big and immobile? Is the size restriction related to the fact that the word “bot” is a diminutive form? Were your criteria informed by any pre-existing science fiction schema, or to what extent were they based on hunches, intuitions, internal logic, etc.? (I realise that it may well be impossible to recall or trace formative influences.)

    Given the growth of the internet, it seems reasonable to presume that the word “bot” is, as you say, “more strongly associated with metaphorical robots in software” than it was years ago. It’s just one of many common contemporary meanings, though, or rather one cluster among many clusters of meaning. COCA has a slew of sci-fi snippets featuring bots of various types; it also led me to this WaPo article on military bots, which you might find interesting.

  17. I’m just fascinated by the way that “meaning”, “connotation” and related concepts work in language. Language is at its least interesting when meaning is something objective that can be written down and agreed upon. It is far more interesting when meaning is something we construct subjectively, by having our own experiences that we associate with particular words and our own set of mental images that come to mind when we hear them. This process is influenced by our common culture but is also fundamentally personal.

    Our personal cognitive dictionaries can be read introspectively by asking ourselves what springs to mind when we hear a word and in what contexts it seems less appropriate by degrees. We can then discuss those connotations, and compare them, not in an attempt to agree on the “real” meanings of words, but in order to find out to what extent we reach similar conclusions independently, to think about the cognitive processes that give rise to them, and to revel in the very fact of their subjectivity.

    You say that my criteria seem arbitrary, to which I reply, “What isn’t?”. It’s just an example of the way the brain constructs meaning, and one that I happen to have gone through the process of articulating. I described the criteria as something I “felt”, which is perhaps best understood by considering the word “felt” in opposition to, say, “decided”. It’s an introspective discovery, not an intellectual imposition.

    Does that make it any clearer where I’m coming from?

  18. Stan says:

    Dragon: In one sense, yes. Although you didn’t answer my questions, you have described fairly accurately why I asked them! Calling your criteria arbitrary was not meant critically or doubtfully. You remembered “thinking introspectively” about the word bot, so I was trying to discover what steps, notions, suppositions, third-party material etc. might have led you to establish the criteria (if you can remember or reconstruct them years later). But I’ll not push the matter.

    I would broadly agree with what you wrote. I don’t think meaning is ever entirely objective; rather it depends on our participation. Technical language allows for tremendously precise description, but even then a word will evoke subtly different sensations and associations in its users, owing to the uniqueness of their personalities, memories, environments, nervous systems, and so on.

  19. My gut feeling is that instances of “bot” that I’ve encountered have referred disproportionately to the sorts of robots I described, and that I subconsciously extrapolated from these encounters. But I can’t possibly verify that, even to myself.

    The furthest I can go is to say that I can’t remember any instances of multi-task humanoid robots in a science fiction show, nor immobile robots in a manufacturing plant, being referred to as bots. On the other hand, if you think about instances in which the “ro” from “robot” is replaced by some other prefix, then probably the first one that comes to mind is “nanobot”, which in general does fit my criteria (small, mobile, and generally with a single purpose such as destroying cancer cells). As do Internet bots, under the metaphor clause.

    Ultimately, though, the idea that I extrapolated from some cultural tendency is only a hypothesis.

  20. In the context of androids dreaming of electric sheep, would censoring software take pride in its expurgated output and perhaps gradually take liberties to achieve even greater purity?

  21. Stan says:

    Pretty far west: Heh. Fortunately not — at least at the moment and as far as I know — but I suppose the potential for future A.I. to feel pride and a yearning for purity would depend on how mammalian it is designed to be.

  22. iamreddave says:

    Really interesting post.

    Why is it that comedians in particular seem to brush up against the social limits of language? Carlin, Lenny Bruce even Bill Hicks seem to be persecuted for words they use rather than uncomfortable truths they tell.

  23. Stan says:

    Thanks, iamreddave. You make a good point, but I don’t think it applies to comedians in particular — writers, philosophers, artists and even scientists have also been vilified for undermining social conventions. In short, anyone whose stock in trade is language and who has a sufficiently radical outlook is liable to provoke similar resistance and condemnation.

    The comedians you mention were all dedicated subversives, railing against not just political stupidity but the very personal apathy, hypocrisy and irresponsibility that enable its persistence. This attitude cut too close to the bone for many people, so they used the comedians’ “anti-social” language as an excuse to persecute them. That is, it was a convenient scapegoat used to ostracise them from the tribe of “decent” gentlefolk.

  24. […] has been replaced, e.g. “You’re in deep ****, buster” or “What the **** is going on?” Censored profanities are a fascinating case, but **** probably can’t be considered a word in its own right. Even […]

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