Tag Archives: filtering

The Horns of a Dilemma

Detail from Judgement by Jacob de Backer (16th century)Once again, I find myself drawn to bad language.  As usual, the cause is e-mail or, rather, e-mail filtering; a recent customer newsletter was rejected by a small number of (school) e-mail systems on the grounds of profanity.  It is not my intention to write offensive newsletters (they are mainly about new publications), so the compilation strategy is to avoid swearing.  In cases where words only have vulgar meanings, this is easy.  It gets harder, as I have mentioned before, where words have multiple meanings dependent on context.  Filtering is not good at context.  I am returning to this topic because the offending word was an odd one.  I think the cause of the problem was the title of David Pemberton’s Dance with the Devil.  Why is the devil banned from my communications?  The question is whether or not “devil” constitutes profanity.

That may seem obvious.  You could argue that the devil, being in opposition to God is, by definition, profane.  However, that which is profane is not necessarily profanity.  (Profane means ‘not sacred’ whereas profanity is swearing or other language that should be avoided in polite society.)  It might also be argued that ‘devil’ is a religious concept: a personification of evil.  But if you go to the source material, you will find relatively little about the devil in the Christian bible – mainly the temptation of Christ (by Satan) as described in three of the gospels, and various instances of “casting out devils” (describing demonic possession).  This should not be such a surprise: Christianity is monotheistic, believing in one omnipotent god; any elevation of the devil beyond the occasional anthropomorphic personification of evil would be to recreate a dualistic system along the lines of Manichaeism (which held that the universe was a perpetual struggle between equal opposing forces of good and evil).  So where do we get the notion of the devil as a consistent figure – the one with the horns and goat’s feet?  Largely through a combination of later Christian mythologizing and mediaeval art.  The former is a matter of joining biblical dots (notably from the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Revelations) to create a more coherent whole than appears in any of the sources.  The second is a matter of laziness.  In Anna Karenina, when Tolstoy said “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” he was talking lazy rubbish.  All happy families are different, but it is much easier – more dramatic – to describe the myriad ways people make each other miserable than it is to depict happiness.  Similarly, depicting the tortures of hell and the attendant demons is far easier than a dull depiction of the tranquillity of heaven.

So what we have is the over-elaboration of a metaphor.  Does that constitute profanity?  I don’t think so.  You can’t discuss the religious concept unless you name it.  I suppose that there is an argument to be made that representations of the devil (such as the 16th century one by Jacob de Backer shown here) constitute profanity, but it’s a pretty abstruse argument.  Then we have the original source of my problem: ‘dance with the devil’ is a metaphor, not a literal depiction or instruction.  Old Harry appears in similar expressions like ‘devil in the detail’ and nobody takes those as literal or offensive.  (At least, I don’t know of anybody who does.  Would anyone care to speak, for example, for the Plymouth Brethren in this respect?  I pick on them as a group who take such things very seriously and much more prescriptively than most of society.)

So are there any instances where use of ‘devil’ constitutes profanity?  Well yes.  You can call someone a devil offensively.  You can also tell them to go to the devil.  These days those uses constitute a vanishingly small minority when compared to legitimate religious use and common metaphor.  So filtering out e-mails that contain the word devil is every bit as lazy as the mediaeval depictions of the tortures of hell.

The Invention of Paul Roostercroft

(And why you can’t tell a Scottish head teacher that a child has been naughty.)
Cockcroft - a smallholding for farming chickens.
Cockcroft does not mean Chicken Ranch

Paul Roostercroft came about through a collision of two problems.  As mentioned previously (We Will Hide Your Stuff), BT Business has a novel filtering system that hides e-mails that it regards as spam.  No customer notification – they don’t even tell you that this filter exists unless you ask the right question – just hiding.  In theory – the theory expounded by the helpful BT second-line support guy who gave me access to the hidden system – this junk mail filter uses a learning algorithm.  That means that if you tell it that something isn’t spam, it is supposed to look at future mail for similar characteristics, and, on that basis, decide that the new mail isn’t spam either.  It doesn’t work.  No matter how many times I tell it that I want to receive the regular bulletins from the Ordnance Survey (I like maps), it decides they are junk, whereas it lets through plenty of advertising e-mails to which I’ve never subscribed.

Similarly with Paul’s e-mail.  Paul is a playwright whose e-mail I wish to receive.  BT wishes to prevent that.  The only reason I can see for BT’s objection is that he has the venerable Anglo Saxon surname of Cockcroft.  I assume that BT thinks that this name will offend my delicate sensibilities.  No matter how many times I tell BTs system that I want his e-mails, they still get trapped in the hidden junk folder.

That brings me on to the other problem (Things You Can’t Say).  If BT thinks Cockcroft will frighten the horses, I can expect the same treatment from other e-mail systems.  How am I supposed to talk about Paul’s plays in our e-mail newsletter?  My solution was euphemism – specifically borrowing the American euphemism for a male chicken.

I thought that the inclusion of Paul Roostercroft had been successful in rendering my e-mails filter-proof until I received a “bounce” message that stated:

“A mail from you to [the head teacher of a Scottish primary school] was stopped and quarantined because it contains objectionable content in line 40”

I thought that this might have been caused by “Puss-in-Boots”, but no.  As far as I can see from scrutinising the e-mail, the naughty word in line 40 was, in fact, “naughty”.

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.