Things You Can’t Say

Warning: this post contains words that are forbidden in Derby.

I sent an e-mail about a school play script to a customer at a school in Derby.  I received an automated reply that said:-

Offensive Words Lexicon Found the expression “bottomless” 1 times, at 2 points each, for an expression score of 2 points.
Total Message Score: 2 points.
The e-mail has been blocked and has not been delivered.

Now, I recognise that in some contexts, the word bottomless can have connotations of immorality, but in this case, the context was the title of Raymond Blakesley’s school play “Santa Claus and the Bottomless Sack”.  E-mail filtering systems are good with words, but very bad with context.  Unfortunately, context is important.  In describing a play to a school, I can’t say that the adult roles are written to be performed by children, as “adult” has been hijacked to mean “pornographic”.  Instead, I have to use the childish expression “grown up”.  Even worse, I can’t say that a play is written for teenagers as “teen” is blocked because it is used to mean “nubile” (though not in the sense of “marriageable”, unless marriageable is a euphemism).

The final insult from the automated message from Derby was the footnote.  It said

The views expressed in this email are personal and may not necessarily reflect those of Derby City Council

So the things I am not allowed to say are dictated by the personal opinions of an automaton.

5 thoughts on “Things You Can’t Say

  1. When I was still in full time teaching the LEA operated a filter on searches.
    When a child was doing a project on Garden Birds he couldn’t do any research on Blue or Great Tits. We never got around to trying Bearded, Marsh, Long Tailed or Coal.
    Feel sorry for the child who searches for the nursery rhyme “I Love Little Pussy”.

  2. The main problem with any common filtering system is that it detects simply the words, and not the context. Mercifully, some filtering systems are now adapting to detect context, mostly within a single sentence – although it is often more work than it’s worth.
    Sadly, we are yet to see a commercial safety filter which can interpret poetry. As Bill said, some perfectly innocent verse – often intended for children – contains some words which, in a different context, are completely unsuitable. As a similar example, my aunt once told me her school’s computers wouldn’t allow kids to search for “The Owl and the Pussycat” because of the repeated use of the word “Pussy”. Alas, I fear the line “what a beautiful Pussy you are” would not make it past even a more advanced filter – at least without a nearby human to tell the filter “it’s okay, it’s only Edward Lear”.

    I recently worked with a multinational team helping to test a forum which was going to operate a word filter across several European languages, and that concept opens up an entirely new can of contextual worms. Take, for example, the word ‘con’. In Spanish, it’s an everyday preposition – ‘with’ or ‘by’. In English, it’s less common – an informal word for a deception (or the act of deceiving someone). In French, though, it’s as vulgar as they come. (If it won’t get you in trouble, run ‘con’ through Google translate from French to English – you’ll get a surprisingly extensive list of possible profanities.)

    1. I remember writing a short play for a French evening class.

      I incuded the phrase “‘c’est un vrai con”. The tutor (who was a rather attractive young French lady) didn’t bat an eyelid, but some of the British female members of the group created a huge furore about my use of obscenities. I then pointed out that the phrase was one used in front of me by a young lady in a hire car business in the French Alps who couldn’t get the supervisor in charge of the garage to answer the phone.

      Obviously, this doesn’t translate literally.

      I also pointed out Shakespeare’s use of the word in Henry V – which is meant to be translated literally!

    2. Ah yes, that reminds me of a colleague in a previous life who was trying to generate a series of three letter codes (something to do with a customer download, I think), which he had to filter for rude words in all known languages – on the grounds that some customers get offended if you instruct them to type “BUM” to receive their download.

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