My ducking phone censors me, damon it

My new phone’s censoring my favourite Anglo Saxon. And I think that’s ducking stupid.

Writing fuel!
Hard to find Anglo Saxon words about coffee…

I mean, it’s literally ducking stupid – not the thing you thought I was euphemising.

Let me explain. I have quite a vocabulary of Anglo Saxon, which I use a lot in the real world. I like some of those words so much I even checked out an Anglo Saxon dictionary to see if I could find more. I also got my Dutch family to tell me all the Netherlands swear terms (they’re virtually meaningless in English, alas).

And this ducking phone won’t let me use them. Not without a lot of poking about on the keyboard, anyway.  Perhaps it’s trying to make me a Better Person for a future filled with the superficial artifice of righteousness, as defined by a western sub-culture that isn’t mine. 

The thing is, the words I often use aren’t usually considered offensive any more. I’ve even heard New Zealand’s Prime Minister use one of them, on TV interview, and nobody batted an eye (he said what my phone would translate as ‘shut yeah’). Of course, Anglo Saxon isn’t the only lexicon my phone censors. There’s also what it calls ‘damon’, for instance – which was offensive to middle-class Victorians 170 years ago. Just in case any of them might use my phone, I suppose.

It’s not the specific words or even the point that phone auto-correct dictionaries are user-editable. It’s the fact that manufacturers do it to sell the phone, for specific reasons driven by certain socially-mediated aspects of the wider human condition that could, if upset, damage sales. Capiche? (OK, pig Latin, but hey… understand?)

What worries me is that the Information Age has already given us Big Data and every potential for Aldous Huxley’s future (the one where people end up in a dystopia because they asked for it). Are we now entering a world where language is to be censored by the very devices we rely on to communicate? Are we to be reduced to what Victor Frankl called the ‘last of the human freedoms’?

Earlier this year there was a scream over an app known as ‘Clean Reader’, which censored e-books, substituting a fairly wide lexicon of ‘unacceptable’ words with other terms, often with hilarious results. The legality of doing this to copyright material was questionable – what it technically did was breach authors’ moral rights per the 1928 Berne Convention, to which the US became a signatory in 1989. The words used and the conceptual style of censorship was specific to a particular US sub-culture. The spirit of the late Reverend Bowdler was, it seems, still alive and well.

The thing is, readers chose to use the app. But a standard mass-market phone? That’s another matter. And what next? Will Word auto-correct start clipping authors’ ability to express themselves as they see fit? Or send Naughty Lists to Microsoft so users can be chastised for Not Being Righteous?


OK, that was a reducto ad absurdum, and in many ways I can see the point. It’s reasonable that adults who might be offended are given options not to be. It’s also important that phones have controls available for kids.

But I’ve seen arguments to the effect that using some of these words is the slippery slope to adults becoming a Bad Person. I don’t buy that for a second. What counts isn’t the word, it’s the emotion. If I wanted, I could say some very offensive and nasty things using everyday words that my phone DOES let me use. It’s not hard. I won’t, because that’s not nice.

Besides which, in the right context, these words add colour. Imagine a world where Arnie’s Terminator character was known for saying ‘Duck You Ads Home’, which is what my phone comes up with when I type That Line into it.

We all know the Anglo Saxon words. If we’re smart, we won’t use ‘em inappropriately. And that’s why I think my phone’s auto-correct dictionary is a total crock of what it calls shut.

Know what? That dictionary’s editable. I’m going to teach my ducking phone Anglo Saxon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


21 thoughts on “My ducking phone censors me, damon it

  1. I don’t think it cares about making us better; I think it likes to be annoying, pure and simple. Or maybe it wants to see what our anger point is. Earlier this afternoon I was trying to type “novel,” but apparently was making ‘novle’–not once, but all three times! The computer, even now, changed it to ‘love.’ It left it alone as soon as I put quote marks around it so I could show you the word I typed. How it got love out of a word starting with N is beyond me. I wasn’t feeling the love that’s for sure. This was the most recent example. There have been many others. With my MG I’m not the typist I used to be.

    1. I agree. I was never a good typist, but usually my bad typing and transposed letters can be puzzled out. Whereas auto-correct substitutes whole other words, even ordinarily. Bah!

  2. I see this as the puritanical crowd in the USA having too much power. Having the app is OK. Having it actually activated on your phone before you buy it is not. Remember how carried away the that whole country got at Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? You’d think the sky had fallen in!

    I think the idea of someone needing to have an app to read a version of a book that won’t offend them is truly pathetic. I think authors should have the choice of whether that app will work with their book, so they can say, “You don’t like how I wrote it, don’t read it.” If something is inappropriate for children, the whole book could be locked.

    1. I agree. And if people feel they might be offended by a book – well, they can choose not to read it. What about the authors’ right to integrity of their own work? Of course, this is what the Rev. Bowdler did to Shakespeare in the nineteenth century, causing similar hilarity. In many ways it works by denying aspects of human reality, and I think it tells us more about the mind-set of the people trying to impose it than it does about the wider human reality. It’s not dissimilar from the way Disney re-cast the nuclear family to remove any hint of even marital sexuality – I did an undergrad paper on it, many years ago. His Duck and Mouse families had no direct parents, all children were nephews or nieces, and the uncles had girlfriends who they romanced platonically, but no wives. Sociologically it was an extension of a specific sub-culture whose specific features were (and remain) broadly unique to the United States; but it seemed almost to be veering towards a reducto-ad-absurdum.

      1. I always remember the old US TV programmes where the parents bedroom had twin single beds – I remember asking my mother about it when I was a kid! Personally I think this obsession with sex and sexuality creates the problems the puritans are trying to solve.

        1. The Hayes Code – apparently, in addition to the two separate beds, one foot had to be on the floor at all times. Hilarious. It was reflective of the worldwide ‘tightening’ of society that followed the First World War. Pre-Code offerings from Hollywood were markedly more risque; I still recall some of the Babylonian scenes from D W Griffiths’ ‘Intolerance’ (1916), which might not pass muster even today (though, I suppose, they would have in the 1970s).

          1. Now that you mention it, I vaguely recall it – glad you’re here to remind me about that bizarrity. (That got a wriggly red line too, but I reckon it should be a word!) 🙂

  3. Years ago a colleague and I worked on an edition of soldiers’ writings where something vile called Mail Sweeper or Mail Marshall (or whatever) intercepted the Anglo-Saxon words that soldiers, sailors and aircrew use and pinged us for doing so. Had we had a swear jar it would have had to be many times the size of Paul Henry’s… Let’s hope your phone company doesn’t sell its squalid technology to Wellington public transport, otherwise the buses will be stopping every few seconds!

    1. They are now, aren’t they? 🙂 Years ago I recall trying to send an email to an archaeologist/historian whose surname began with one of the Verboten Words (you know the one I mean) – MailMarshal at the receiving end kept rejecting the email relentlessly…

  4. I know exactly what you mean. I hate writing blog posts on my tablet. It’s always trying to “help” when more often than not it should replace the word with “hindrance.” I read extensively, and I read authors from many countries writing from many different “times.” That means I use words that give spell checkers severe indigestion, and me, a headache. Just the other day, I was writing a story and I wanted to throw in some New Zealand slang. I do this often because I intend to write stories from anywhere and any “time.” Luckily, I wasn’t writing on my tablet so the spellchecker just complained that I was misspelling “blink” when I wrote “Blimin.” Oops. Dinged again. What’s that red squiggly thing? I intend to keep on learning and writing whatever the “hall” I want to write however the “duck” I want to write it. I think such useful tools as you’ve described are only useful to those who wish to “sleep” through their “conscious” day.

    1. Wide vocab is good! There are a million words in English, we need to air more of them. The NZ slang issue is a curious one. A lot of our older words (like ‘Blinkin’, a euphemism for ‘Bloomin’, itself a euphemism for ‘Bloody’) are falling out of use in favour of US teen-speak terms, which have oozed in here via some sort of osmotic effect. A fair number of the local terms are inherited from Te Reo Maori – ‘tutu’ is one of my favourites, meaning ‘to mischievously tinker with something’ – and that’s its original meaning in Te Reo as well. Another is ‘Skody’, meaning ‘sub-standard, old and grubby’, which I think is a reference to the Skoda 100 coupe that was sold here in the 1970s and had a repute for being a bit rubbish as a car. I should do a post on some of our better slang terms before they are lost forever.

      1. Haha! Yes, do the slang terms post. I love that sort of thing. That’s a part of culture. Don’t let it disappear. It’s happening. here. If I say something is ‘peachy,’ a teen here would look at me like a I grew a third eye. Somebody my father’s age wold just nod and smile. It’s old slang that’s almost disappeared. Calling someone a ‘Viper’? That’s virtually extinct. Smokers of that “funny weed” used to be called that in 1930s.

  5. Thanks for making me laugh first thing in the morning. I haven’t been able to do that in a while 😀

    If you’re up for a real adventure, try typing in a language that’s not supported by your phone manufacturer. Not the same thing as Anglo-Saxon censorship, but the results vary between hilarious and downright embarrassing. I’ve taken to proof-reading all Afrikaans texts three times before tapping send.

  6. Wonderful post, Matthew! I am still managing to avoid these “smart” phones, as I believe they are still called?!?! Five years, after having a personal and work cell phone, I decided to stay connected through a laptop. I have never been a fan of phones but I did like the idea of my cell phone connecting me to the Internet so sometimes, I wonder if I should. Not yet, obviously. 😉

    I am indeed sorry the rest of the world is having to endure the temper tantrums and lunacy of a segment of U.S. society that simply boggles the mind. The more they fear, the tighter wound they are, trying to censor any and all apps. Thankfully, life is impermanent. 😉 Really enjoyed this one, Matthew. It is a treasure.


  7. We had an automatic censor for a short while on my work intranet. I got a giggle everytime it censored our clients Site Do*umentation. But if I want to use a rude word (which I do frequently and I know simply isn’t lady-like 😉 ) I’d get very pussed off it corrected it.

  8. My phone autocorrects “Auckland” to “Bucklame”. Sometimes I don’t bother to change it. Funnily enough, this happens to enough people that Bucklame has become a nickname for the city.

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