July 31, 2006

Automatic asterisking

My mail box overflows with information about taboo language in the world of rock music, including several suggestions that the odd awarding of asterisks in iTunes music store listings is the result of a script that does the asterisking automatically, and therefore can't block words that have significant non-taboo uses.  I resisted this idea at first -- it seemed so, well, stupid, scarcely an effective way of protecting young minds from dangerous content -- but some research shows that this is almost surely so.  Here's the system, as it was working today:

1. The search software accepts a taboo word as input, and finds everything with that word in it (yes, there are some occurrences that escape asterisking, as I'll demonstrate below), AND everything with the asterisked version of the word in it. So a search on cock pulls up occurrences of "cock" and also "c**k".  The search ignores case ("dick" and "Dick" are the same word), apostrophes, and hyphens.  And deals only with whole words, so fuck or fucks won't get you the band The Crucifucks.  (Joe Salmons and Monica Macaulay, in their 1988/89 Maledicta piece "Offensive rock band names: A linguistic taxonomy", awarded the prize to Crucifucks.  The band is still in print, I see.)

2.  Asterisking preserves the number of letters in the word, and the first and last letters. So:

f**k, f***s, f****d, f*****g, f****n, f****n'

3.  Asterisking affects the song titles and the album titles, and with (so far as I can tell) perfect consistency -- but, bizarrely, NEVER affects the name of the artist(s).  So we get:

Artists:  Cock Robin, Cock & Pussy, Goblin Cock, Cock Lorge.  Artist: Big Cock.  Album by them: "C**k Rock".  Song on this album: "Year of the C**k".

Artist: Anal Cunt.  Artist: Mary's Cunt.  Their song: "Mary's C**t -- Pitbull Pete".

Artist: Holy Fuck.  Album by them: "Holy F**k".

Artist: Crazy Penis.   Artist: Penis Flytrap.  Song by them: "P***s Flytrap | Wait".

Artist: The Piss Drunks.  Artist: Piss Ant.  Album by them: "P**s Off". 

Artist: Nashville Pussy.  Album by them: "Let Them Eat P***y".

Artist: Suck It To Ya.  Album by Boris the Sprinkler: "S**k".  Song by Dude Offline: "You S**k, You Drank My Beer!"

No human intelligence is applied in any of this.   "Piss" is asterisked even when it doesn't refer to urine or urinating.  Non-fellatial "suck" is asterisked.  "Balls" is not asterisked, even in the song title "Blue Balls".

4.  The obvious miscreants (and their variants) are asterisked; these words count, in some people's minds anyway, as taboo vocabulary across the board:

asshole, bitch, cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, nigga, nigger, piss, shit

Some items get on the list because a high percentage of their uses are sexual:

ass, clit, cock, jism, masturbate, penis, prick, pussy, slut, suck, tit(s), vagina, whore

On the other hand, words that have significant non-sexual uses aren't asterisked:

balls, butt, dick, ho, hoe, jack (off), jerk (off), nuts

Nor are a few words that must have seemed to the iTunes folks to be technical or medical:

anal, anus, phallus, semen, testicles

There's a fine line here between these words that make it through the filter and "masturbate", "penis", and "vagina", which don't.  (Another bit of oddness is the fact that "rape" escapes the iTunes filter.)

One wonderful result of all of this is Lil' Kim's track listed in iTunes as "S**k My Dick".

[Final disclaimer: I make no claim to completeness in these lists.  Update 8/1/06: Though still scratching my head about a world in which "masturbate" is a dirty word, but "rape" is not, I've checked out some more vocabulary.  A nice minimal pair: "blow job" is ok, because each word on its own is ok, but "blowjob" turns into "b*****b".  "Bullshit" is, of course, out.  "Turd" is out, but "crap", "poop", and "fart" are ok.  And "fag" and "faggot" are out, but "gay". "queer", "homo", and "dyke" are ok.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 31, 2006 07:31 PM