November 17, 2020

Tilting at Filters or the Post-Postmodern Bowdler

Offense of the Month, Fall 2020
Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), for those of you who can’t quite place the name, was the family sanitizer of Shakespearean drama and eponym of that wonderful verb, “bowdlerize,” meaning to censor written texts either by removing or rewording offensive or otherwise objectionable terms and phrases. The first bowdlerized volume was The Family Shakespeare (1807), which omitted “the indelicacy of expression” that made the Bard so bountiful and bawdy. Evidently the author’s name on the original title page was itself an example of bowdlerization: The book, which abridged 20 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, was in fact written by Thomas’s sister Henrietta, a published author, whom he wished to shield from the public’s knowing that she actually understood what the expurgated words meant.

Henrietta must have worked hard. Imagine reading through Shakespeare line by line and asking whether each word passes the delicacy test: is the stray interjection “God!” a form of blasphemy and can it be replaced with the word “Heavens!” or must it be excised without substitution? A modern Henrietta would surely have an easier time of it. All she’d need is a software filter that could crawl through the text and replace or delete offending words as it encountered them. Nor would that be the limit of her power. She could even bowdlerize in real time, as people typed and sent notes to each other privately from one end of a convention hall to the other.

Like what happened in early October during the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Fleeing its intended geographical site in Cincinnati because of the pandemic, the Society connected its attendees through a convention and exhibit hall software package engineered by Convey Services. On the first day, a dinosaur expert was responding to a colleague’s question when he noticed that as he typed “Hell Creek Formation,” a place where dinosaur remains have been found in Montana, the screen spit out “ **** Creek Formation.” It quickly came to light that the specialty software contained a built-in bowdlerizer or a “pre-packaged naughty-word filter,” in the words of Stephanie Drumheller (or should that be Drum****er?), a University of Tennessee paleontologist and attendee. Participants began to refer to the Heck Creek Formation. No problem, right? Even Rip van Winkle would quickly figure out how to get around a bluenosed filter by typing strings like “sh!t.”

But attendees quickly discovered that this was no fourth-grade wannabe content filter afraid to venture beyond George Carlin’s seven dirty words. This was an up-to-date “gotcha” filter, supplied by a vendor called Arena.im, and it stood ready to do battle with anyone whose toes protruded even a millimeter across a bright smutty line. It didn’t take long for the filter to return * * * * for the word “bone,” a rather obvious word, one would think, for use by a trowel of paleontologists.

Carolyn Bradfield, CEO of Convey, expressed surprise that the word “bone” was on the proscribed list. “I don’t know why in the world the word ‘bone’ was in there,” she told The New York Times. But Ms. Bradfield knows just what to do: “We have to make sure we take that filter and remove words that are stupid and shouldn’t have been there.”

[Pause] . . . (Counting to ten.)

Really, Ms. Bradfield? Should it appall us that no one on your staff managed to brief you on the vulgar implications of common words so that you don’t put your “lower limb extremity” into your “esophageal face gate” when talking to the Times? Or should we be impressed that you license software overseen by linguists who seem to know far more about our exuberantly variegated language than you? Or ought we be offended that the filter is insensitive to the particular community using the words to be vetted? Anyone can throw the Urban Dictionary at a text string. The trick is to teach it that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Some of the other words the filter flagged and redacted with * * * * were “ass,” “jerk,” “knob,” “pubis, “pubic,” “sexual,” “stroke,” “stream,” “erection,” “bail,” “iffy,” “crack,” “lies,” “enlargement,” “damn,” “flange,” “penetrate,” “lie,” and “crap.”

And, for the very very lingually abstemious, “enterococcus.”

Ms. Bradfield wants to contextualize. Anyone who can do that for all the groups the filter will face gets the Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s one her people will have to work on. The Arena.im filter returned * * * * for “Wang,” the surname for more than 90 million Chinese people. It left standing the surname “Johnson,” which at least in the U.S. is used by just under 2 million. But their standard slang meaning is the same. Professor Z. Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, was unamused: “If you’re going to censor, censor everything. Censor Johnson so everyone is offended.”

Offense filter, heel thyself!*

*Pun intended.