Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This post contains a discussion of profanity and its censorship. As you can imagine, the post must contain profanity to advance the discussion. Sorry if that offends you.

So, a friend of mine on Twitter recently linked me to a post in Apple’s Support manuals entitled “How to prevent profanity from appearing in Dictionary”.

The obscene and filthy people at Oxford American Dictionary

As most OS X users know, Apple includes a wonderful program called “Dictionary.app” with every copy of OS X 10.4. This program lets you access an electronic copy of the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus. There, you can find good definitions, etymologies, and pronunciations. You can even have it give pronunciation in the IPA if you tell it to do so in the application’s Preferences dialog.

The beautiful part of this is that it’s an entire dictionary. It may not be the full, unabridged version, but it’s very good for free software. You can find nearly any word you’d like in there, ranging from phone to phoneme to allophone. However, you can also find all sorts of profanity, defined in academic terms.

Take, for example, the treatment of one of the more vulgar words in the English language, “fuck”:

fuck |fək| vulgar slang verb [ trans. ] 1 have sexual intercourse with (someone).
• [ intrans. ] (of two people) have sexual intercourse.
2 ruin or damage (something).
noun an act of sexual intercourse.
• [with adj. ] a sexual partner.
exclamation used alone or as a noun ( the fuck) or a verb in various phrases to express anger, annoyance, contempt, impatience, or surprise, or simply for emphasis.

(There’s much, much more about this fascinating word)

So, although it definitely contains the word and examples of the usage, one could hardly argue that it’s truly wanton and profanely using them.

Why censor the Dictionary?

Yes, the Dictionary app contains uses of profanity. However, these uses are all academic, and used in the context of describing the profanity itself. So, this raises the obvious question of why one would bother censoring the dictionary at all.

Perhaps a parent might be afraid that little Jimmy will learn those horrid, horrid terms. However, in order for little Jimmy to find them, he’d have to seach for them.

Once little Jimmy knows the terms well enough to search for them, chances are, his mind is already “corrupted” and he’s heard or seen the terms elsewhere. No matter how much fundamentalist parents desire to do so, you can’t make him unlearn what a word means, so there’s not a whole lot of point to keeping the largely academic discussion of the words away from him.
However, even if little Jimmy stumbles across a profane word online, perhaps it’s better that he looks it up immediately and gets the relatively tame information from the Dictionary App, rather than asking his third grade teacher what it means.

Either way, Profanity is a fact of life, and no matter how badly some people don’t want to hear it, it exists. Blocking objective, academic analysis of it won’t make the “problem” go away, and really, it’ll only make the word more tantalizing.

So, don’t censor the Dictionary Application. In the age of the Internet, little Jimmy will always be able to find out what a given word means, no matter how hard you try to censor him. Let Jimmy use the dictionary to find out what words mean in an educational sense.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer he just type “fucking” into a Google Image Search and start browsing. I didn’t think so…


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