June 04, 2007

Annals of automated avoidance

My files on plain speaking and modesty (and various approaches to taboo vocabulary in between) continue to expand, but recent days have brought two especially striking examples of automated avoidance: "hen and ****" on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds site (asterisking courtesy of Microsoft), and automatic rejection of "XX" (as in the Roman numeral for '20') in Yahoo groups.

First, from Larry Urdang (on the ADS-L), this report from the Daily Telegraph of 1 June:

RSPB website bans use of the word 'cock'
By Stewart Payne

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has banned the use of the word "cock" when applied to the male of the species, in case it causes offence.

[Addendum: Adam Kightley points out that cock isn't banned -- that is, asterisked -- on the RSPB site in general, only on its on-line forum, and that the word does appear elsewhere on the site.  This is not at all clear from the sentence above, although the succeeding discussion, below, mostly restricts itself to the forum.  But note the quote from the moderator below, which refers to "the RSPB website".  I suppose I should just stop trusting anything I read in the papers.]

In a move condemned for "taking political correctness too far", a correspondent on an RSPB online forum was surprised to find that his use of the word "cock", when referring to a male blackbird, was replaced with four asterisks.

He challenged the forum moderator over the sensitivity to the word, only to find that once again the asterisks appeared. He wrote: "When is it not in order to refer to a male bird as a **** and a female as a hen? I've heard of PC but that is taking things too far."

The contributor, named as JohnD from Holmfirth, Yorkshire, adds: "It's censorship that is just silly. What should I have said then...the daddy bird...the father bird...the male."

The moderator replied: "It is not political correctness. The issue is words that can be used in an offensive context and we should not forget that the RSPB website has a massive viewing from children.
"Pretty much all internet forums use the same or similar filters. It is far from an ideal situation but it is better to be safe than sorry."

In a second posting, the moderator adds: "Some words have been hijacked for a different and more offensive meaning and it is important to examine the context in which they are delivered because forums have the potential to be read by people of all ages.

"It is not easy to override the system but I have seen this being abused on other forums by careful wording so it is better to be cautious."

An RSPB spokesman confirmed that it did not use the word "cock" on its website, preferring instead to describe birds as either male or female.

"The filter that removes the word 'cock' and replaces it with asterisks is built in to the Microsoft software package we use. This is standard procedure. It is not something that we have added ourselves," she said.

"These filters are designed to remove a range of words the software designers believe some people may find offensive. When someone uses the work cock it automatically replaces it with asterisks. Our moderator is not sitting there making these changes."

John, in Holmfirth, had the final word, writing in another posting: "I was thrilled to see on the bird table a pair of... Parus major."

"As bird lovers will know, a Parus major is a great tit, and while ***** do not get past the forum censor, 'tits' do not cause offence."

Outraged letters followed the next day, including one from the owner of the 300-year-old country pub The Cock Inn, in Luddesdowne, Kent.

Notice that, once again, it's a spelling, in this case c-o-c-k, that's being avoided, not the actual taboo lexical item, in this case cock 'penis'. 

To summarize: Who killed Cock Robin?  Microsoft.  In the software, with asterisks.

On to Yahoo.  This report came in from Ken Rudolph this morning.  Ken has been overseeing the Yahoo groups sites for motsscons (annual gatherings of people from the Usenet newsgroup soc.motss).  Two years ago, the motsscon, the 18th, was in Vancouver, and the site was motsscon_XVIII.  Last year, the motsscon was in Minneapolis, and the site was motsscon_XIX.  This year's motsscon is in, oh my, Palo Alto, so that the site should have been motsscon_XX.  But, Ken reports, "Yahoo groups doesn't allow the word XX to be used in any group name or description", presumably because that's too racy.

For the moment, Ken has added postings for Palo Alto to the Minneapolis site.  Meanwhile, another site will be created, but not on Yahoo groups.

As with the automated (and decidedly inept) avoidance asterisking on iTunes I've reported on, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry about these cases.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 4, 2007 12:42 PM