Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

_I am discussing profanity, slurs and their censorship in this post. As such, this post will necessarily contain profanity and slurs. Although I’ll do my best to keep usage to the minimum and to keep everything academic, if you’re offended by tabooed clumps of letters on screens, you might want to move on to a different post. _

On Saturday, I posted about Apple’s guide to blocking “profanity” in the Dictionary application. Well, shortly after I finished the post, I became curious about the blocking itself, and began to wonder what Apple actually considers to be profane, and how effective this filter actually is.

Ask the experts

I assume that, when looking for a good definition of profanity, Apple would check their own dictionary. Here’s how it defines “Profanity”:

profanity |prəˌfønədi| |proʊˌfønədi| noun ( pl. -ties)
• blasphemous or obscene language : an outburst of profanity.
• a swear word; an oath.
• irreligious or irreverent behavior.
ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from late Latin profanitas, from Latin profanus ‘not sacred’ (see profane ).

For the record, I disagree with their IPA pronunciation (/prəfænəɾi/ is how I say it), but everything else sounds reasonable. So, according to Apple, all words that are swears, irreligious, “irreverant”, or obscene should be removed from the dictionary.

The hunt for profanity

Then, I set off to find obscene, irreligious, offensive, and swear-ish words. Gathered both from my own corrupted mind and from other sources (Urbandictionary, George Carlin’s Seven words you can’t say on TV, and more), I assembled these words in a list, and then slowly started plugging them in to Dictionary.app. Surprisingly, only one word that I came up with wasn’t in the dictionary, “Asshat”, not shocking given its relatively recent birth online. Everything else was included and defined quite academically. I also checked a few words that aren’t really obscene, but describe a tabooed act or subject (“fellatio” or “penis”)

Once I’d checked to see what was in the dictionary, I went about enabling the parental controls. This was actually a royal pain, and requires OS X server maintenance software along with some technical knowledge, but eventually, I got it done. (No, I don’t feel any need to post a walkthrough, read my last post).

Finally, I went back through and tried all the words on the list again. The results were fascinating, and words broke down into three categories.

Beware, this post gets rather packed with profanity after this point. It’s still all in academic context, I’m just trying to minimize the “Oh, think of the children” backlash.

Category One: Unchanged

Some of the words were present in the censored dictionary in exactly the same form as in the normal dictionary. There was no change at all to the dictionary entries for these words, and they were just as easily found as before.

To Apple’s credit, all the “innocent yet tabooed” terms (penis, vagina, fellatio, cunnilingus, dildo) were in this category, showing that they seem to have a healthy (in my eyes) idea of the difference between discussing naughty things and using profanity.

Also, Apple struck a good balance with religious terms considered to be swears by some. “Hell” and “Damn” were both uncensored, and their “profane” uses were discussed as well. “Blasphemy”, the most irreligious word I can imagine, remained.

Some of the entries in this category were a bit more surprising. “Bitch” and “Bastard” were fully present, even discussing derogatory meanings. “Boob” referring to the female breast (although not profane, still viewed negatively) was there. “Slut” and “Whore” were both present as well, unedited.

Much to my relief, “cum” was present and unchanged, both in latin and in English, even keeping the reference to it being an alternate spelling of “come”, whose orgasmic meaning is still present in its entry.

Category Two: Redacted Entries

This surprised me a bit, but there were a number of words which were still present in the dictionary, but redacted such that the “profane” uses were missing.

One example of this is the word “Pussy”. Here’s the normal entry:

pussy |ˌpʊsi| noun ( pl. -sies)
1 (also pussycat) informal a cat.
2 vulgar slang a woman’s genitals.
• offensive women in general, considered sexually.
• offensive sexual intercourse with a woman.
• informal a weak, cowardly, or effeminate man.

Here’s the censored, redacted version:

pussy |ˌpʊsi|
noun ( pl. -sies)
1 (also pussycat) informal a cat.

So, not only is the sexual meaning taken out, but the pejorative (insulting) “coward” meaning is removed as well.

There were other examples of redacted entries in the censored version. When you enable parental controls, “Cock” refers only to roosters, “Crap” is a dice game, “tits” are little gray birds, and a “prick” comes only from a needle.

Interestingly, some slurs were redacted to only include their normal meanings, so “fag” and “faggot” are no longer anti-gay slurs, just terms for a bundle of sticks, and a “dyke” isn’t an offensive term for a lesbian, but instead an alternate spelling for a large, water-blocking structure.

Category Three: Disappeared Entries

Some words were evidently too obscene to include at all (or lacked non-profane meanings). These entries were just taken out of the censored dictionary altogether, and a search redirects you to the closest word (“asshole” goes to “ashore”, for instance).

Some of these weren’t surprising. The F-Bomb and its derivatives (“fuck”, “fucker”, “motherfucker”) were all disappeared by the Parental Controls option. Vulgar terms for bodily functions and areas (“shit”, “asshole”, “piss”, “cunt”, “twat”, “bollocks”) all disappeared as well. Highly obscene sexually charged terms (like “poontang” and “cocksucker”) disappeared with the censorship as well.

Finally, perhaps the most tabooed word in American society, “nigger”, is taken out completely, even though the original entry explains the taboo-ness as well as discussing the contemporary self-referential usage by those of the term within the African-American community.

So, what is profane in Cupertino?

I must say, I’m fairly impressed with Apple’s technology and their restraint. Although they did a very good job of censoring patently offensive words (category three) that have little value except as swear words, they also dealt with double meanings (“cock” or “pussy”) very well by redacting entries. Their censorship was neither too zealous nor too lax, and frankly, if they insist on allowing this, they did it well.

However, as I said last time, I still believe that the dictionary shouldn’t be censored. Kids will find the words sooner or later, and it’s better they find out what they mean from an academic source than from a google search.

I’ve brought my dictionary back to normal mode now, and I encourage people to keep theirs there as well. Parents should be attentive to their children’s language development, and explain what swearing is, why those words are a problem, and what’s not approriate to say at Grandma’s house. What you consider to be obscene may be very different than what Apple’s engineers do, so there’s no sense in having them tell you what you can look up.

Oh, and for those who are curious, “Windows” does show up in the Censored version. I guess that proves that it’s not Steve Jobs making the call…


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