Blown To Bits

Apple Censors the English Dictionary

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

Hard on the heels of Amazon reaching into the homes of Kindle owners and snatching copies of Orwell’s 1984 off their devices, we have a stunning reminder that Apple’s iPhone is also a tethered device, and nothing goes on it that Mother Apple doesn’t want on it. Application developers have to go through a certification process to get their apps approved for the iPhone, and among the standards applied by the certification team are prohibitions on obscene and pornographic material. On that basis, Apple refused to certify the Ninjawords dictionary until the developer removed words such as “shit” and “fuck” that appear in every standard dictionary of the English language. John Gruber, the author of the linked-to post, points out that some of the banned words appear in the King James bible, and some, such as “ass,” “cock,” and “screw,” have inoffensive meanings which are equally unavailable to the iPhone users of the dictionary. Even after the developers scrubbed every word that had a sexual meaning, Apple insisted that the dictionary carry an “age 17 and over” classification.

No unexpurgated dictionary on the iPhone? No dictionary at all for 16 year olds, lest they find a word with sexual connotations? I’ve been thinking about getting one, but this is too much, no matter how neat they are. We don’t want our consumer electronics suppliers to be the arbiters of public morality, because in 21st century America the least common denominator will be down somewhere near the level of Saudi Arabia.

3 Responses to “Apple Censors the English Dictionary”

  1. Sam I Am Says:

    Oh Harry, for God’s sake, get over yourself. 24 million people love that thing and Apple has every right to create a walled garden and you can choose to enter or not. The iPhone will have a shot at being the arbiter of public morality when it’s illegal not to have one.

    It’s guys like you who think a night club has no right to a dress code, or a theatre has no right to enforce a “cell phones off” policy. Jesus. Spare us.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    OK, it’s what people want and Apple is tuning its product accordingly. So why on earth do people want Apple to take the dirty words out of the dictionary? What are we afraid of? We are normalizing the notion that words can hurt you and you should be protected from them. That’s not a good thing.

  3. Nick Humez Says:

    As a lexicographer I am troubled by the notion that Apple would offer as part of what one is paying for, a supposedly merchantable dictionary–that is, one that is suitable for the purpose for which it is offered, which in the case of a dictionary of the English language is implicitly as a comprehensive lexicon–without any explicit disclaimer that “this is a dictionary only of so-called “hard words” or “this is a dictionary censored so as to make it suitable for persons of tender years, and not a comprehensive lexicon.” It seems to me that this is intellectually dishonest, apart from flouting the Uniform Commercial Code’s merchantability stipulation as well. A candid disclaimer would of course make a great deal of difference here, though it would not address the question of those words which have both an innocuous and a “naughty” meaning. One cannot help wondering what has possessed Apple now to indulge such solicitude for the “innocence” of kids who have been able to go to any library and look up such words in the American Heritage Dictionary since 1976 (that is, since their PARENTS were children!) And one cannot help thinking that innocence and ignorance are being conflated here, and that what Apple is doing is fostering the latter in the misguided impression that it is somehow safeguarding the former. If so, how are the mighty fallen!