Friday, August 22, 2008

Overcoming Lars Porsena

Lars Porsena of Clusium
By the nine gods he swore

Talking of censorship, it's amusing to see one of my favorite blogs, Making Light, wading into the swamp of 'decency'. It seems so not their thing. Not that they are indecent, mind.

In The honor of your assistance is requested in a small matter of language their contributor, Abi, has been asked to provide a list of Bad Words that you should not be able to use to tag/describe a book in a database, because the word is 'offensive'. She asked the Making Light regulars to help her.

This is a task that doesn't have an answer, but if you're still required to do it, the best thing to do would be to buy an off-the-shelf nanny program. But she didn't, so if you read the blog post and the comments, you can read many, many people struggling with many, many rude words. Some of them you really wouldn't want your book tagged with. Some are just silly. (Warning: naughty words at the link.)

I'm not going to comment there, as people have already said what I would have said (above). The arguments are not about whether someone should be able to tag items with rude words - the default assumption seems to be that offensive terms are at best unhelpful, and I agree with that. The arguments are about what constitutes a rude word in the first place.

I work in a medical field. The first thing I learned about networked computers is that they couldn't tell the difference between someone looking up "breast" because he was a bored heterosexual man, and a woman looking up "breast cancer" because she was very, very afraid and lonely and needed help with her diagnosis as soon as possible before she broke down and lost it. Aha, you might say, leave 'breast' in, and disallow 'ginormous knockers'. Yes - good point. But the number of synonyms for 'ginormous knockers' - huge bazooms etc. - is very large, and the scalpel needed to excise the medical/artistic uses of 'breast' from the bored-heterosexual-men uses of 'breast' is very fine indeed.

I won't go on, as the 177 comments so far on the original post cover this territory and more. Just a few comments - I was absolutely alarmed at one of the commenter's claims that he'd used a public library that hadn't let him research Ancient Persia adequately because it blocked the word 'Aryan'. What was the programmer thinking? Don't tell me, I know what they were thinking, but why they thought it was either their mandate to do so or that they could do it correctly, I really don't know.

My motto is Humani Nihil A Me Alienum Puto. I tried to enter this into Google from work one day and got reported to Human Resources. Apparently, 'puto' is a rude word to someone. Perhaps, but it's a common non-rude word in Latin.

I was also taken by the Brit in the comments at Making Light who wanted the well known rude words 'scrubber' and 'slag' banned. That would cut out a couple of useful terms for tagging industrial processes. There was a special plea from at least one gay guy not to have 'gay' on the list of banned words. Yes, you can call someone 'gay' and be insulting, but sometimes people really are gay, and like it that way.

There is also discussion of the famous Scunthorpe, a town in England that does not appear on a lot of searches to its detriment, and Penistone, a town near where I was born.

My advice? Just give it up.


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