Sunday, 7 August 2011

How language transformed humanity


Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Profanity filter cock-up

The Barnet Times uses a profanity filter on its web site to prevent the posting of obscene language. Fair enough, you might think. But what constitutes obscene language?

Earlier today, a message was posted on their web site which included the phrase ‘cock-up’. This was redacted by the software and published as ****-up.

The Cambridge University Press on-line dictionary defines cock-up simply as: “something that is done wrong or badly”. According to “The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words” published by the BBC:

“…the phrase ‘cock-up’ might appear to have come about in a similar way to ‘balls-up’, its origins are actually in beer making. If the batch went bad, they turned the cock (i.e. tap, or faucet) up to drain the barrel.”
Leaving aside the question of whether the word ‘cock’ in this context was obscene, it is clear that profanity filters are of limited use. The substitute word ‘kok’ was accepted by the newspaper’s software. Changing a few letters will beat the filters without detracting from the intended meaning.

This was exemplified in the classic Monty Python ‘Travel Agent’ sketch featuring Eric Idle as a customer with a speech impediment, which made him pronounce the letter ‘c’ as ‘b’. Upon realising that he could substitute the letter ‘k’ instead, he declared: “what a silly bunt!”

Unfortunately, the BBC cut this line from the broadcast version, although it is included in the album Monty Python's Previous Record.