On Censoring Dictionaries


This morning, one of my Twitter friends @mjvalente linked to an article on John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog, “Ninjawords: iPhone Dictionary, Censored by Apple.”

As a writer, I’m bothered by most forms of censorship, so I read what Gruber had to say. He described Ninjawords, an iPhone dictionary application, and had all kinds of glowing praise for it, followed by the meat of the problem:

It’s a terrific app — pretty much exactly what I’ve always wanted in an iPhone dictionary, and, yes, with both a better user experience and better dictionary content than the other low-cost dictionaries in the App Store.

But Ninjawords for iPhone suffers one humiliating flaw: it omits all the words deemed “objectionable” by Apple’s App Store reviewers, despite the fact that Ninjawords carries a 17+ rating.

Apple censored an English dictionary.

Gruber goes on to point out just how idiotic this is and, frankly, I can’t disagree with anything he has to say. Dictionaries should include all words in common usage; the words that were removed — words like shit and fuck — can be heard daily on cable television and in schoolyards.

My question is this: By removing them, are they trying to pretend that these words don’t exist?


This morning, I used the Dictionary widget, that’s part of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard on my Mac. I use this tool often throughout my work day to make sure the words I’m using in my work are the right words or to look up words I’ve heard but am unclear on meaning. With Gruber’s post fresh in my mind, I decided to see what would happen if I looked up shit.

Shit in the Dictionary WidgetGuess what? As you can see in this screen shot, it was there.

So was fuck.

So Apple makes a dictionary with “objectionable content” available as part of its operating system, which can be used by anyone — including school children! — but will not allow an iPhone (and iPod Touch?) app with the same content?

You might argue that the Dictionary widget and application in Mac OS X are protected by Parental Controls. But how many kids who are unfamiliar with these words are likely to be buying dictionary apps? And with these words in common usage throughout the U.S., how many kids do you think have never heard them? And isn’t there some educational value to understanding the true meaning of a word and its usage? I don’t know about you, but I find the Dictionary Widget information shown here quite illuminating. I especially enjoy the “unobjectionable” explanations of the phrases.

This all goes back to George Carlin’s routine “The Seven Words.” The whole routine — not just the words. (If you follow that link and watch the clip on YouTube, watch the whole thing, including his reasoning. George Carlin was a genius.) They’re just words, people. They’re not going to bite you or make you immoral or cause you to want to kill someone. They’re individual words — not even used in sentences to communicate a message. Just plain words.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense to cut them out of the dictionary.

And removing other words with perfectly acceptable meanings — words that even appear in the Bible! — just because they also have “objectionable” meanings only makes matters worse. A cock is a bird. An ass is a donkey. (Gruber’s post lists more of them.) Should kids be kept in the dark about these meanings, too?

Apple, you know I love you — I’ve been using Macs and writing about them since 1989 — but you’re being silly. Cut it out. You’re embarrassing us.

What do you think?