One of the most disgraceful stories I’ve read over the last week is the saga of how Apple banned a dictionary from its online Apps Store — because it contained rude words.
The dictionary in question, Ninjawords, was only made available to iPhone and iPod Touch customers when some of the offending vocabulary was removed. And even then, only people aged 17 or older were allowed to download it.
As soon as the story broke, Apple found itself caught up in whirl of negative publicity. The company wheeled out a senior employee, Phil Schiller, to defend its actions. His argument boiled down to ‘this dictionary was ruder than normal dictionaries’.
“The issue that the App Store reviewers did find with the Ninjawords application is that it provided access to other more vulgar terms than those found in traditional and common dictionaries, words that many reasonable people might find upsetting or objectionable.”
Oh come off it, Phil. As any schoolboy will tell you, looking up rude words in the dictionary is one of life’s great pleasures. And if Blackadder III is to be believed, it’s a pastime that kicked off the moment Dr Johnson compiled A Dictionary of the English Language. Remember this bit of dialogue?
Dr Johnson: (to George) So, ahem, tell me, sir, what words particularly interested
George (Prince Regent): Oh, er, nothing… Anything, really, you know…
Dr Johnson: Ah, I see you’ve underlined a few (takes dictionary, reads): `bloomers’;
`bottom’; `burp’; (turns a page) `fart’; `fiddle’; `fornicate’?
George (Prince Regent): Well…
Dr Johnson: Sir! I hope you’re not using the first English dictionary to look up
Edmund Blackadder: I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be
Exactly right. The only way to judge a dictionary is not by the words it contains, but by its ability to define them well. When I was about 10, I had a useless dictionary. I turned to it after reading the word ‘wanton’ in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾. ‘Wanton’, according to this edition, meant ‘lascivious’. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what ‘lascivious’ meant either, so I looked that up too. It was defined simply as ‘wanton’. I might as well have not bothered.
In fairness to Apple, I’d be the first to admit that there are plenty of words you don’t really want to hear from the mouths of children (although I’m the sort of copywriter who thinks intellectually-limiting and joyless jargon is much more dangerous than fruity oaths or curses). But because a word shouldn’t be used in certain circumstances, it doesn’t mean we should cut people off from knowing that word in the first place. That kind of censorship is for dickheads.
More importantly, though, Apple’s stance is deeply inconsistent. On my own iPhone I have an application called Stanza. It’s an e-book reader, and gives you instant access to all the out-of-copyright books available at Project Gutenberg. One of my favourites is Captain Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the the Vulgar Tongue, a brilliant collection of ‘buckish slang, university wit and pickpocket eloquence’. In it you’ll find terms such as ‘Flying pasty’, ‘Lag Fever’, ‘Nob Girder’, ‘Gaying instrument’, ‘Dobin rig’ and ‘Bleeding cully’. Some of these phrases are utterly disgusting, and others aren’t. What Apple needs to remember is that it’s up to individuals to discover the difference for themselves, and it has no place telling consumers what they should — or should not — read.