07 January 2011

A Modest Technological Solution for Offensive Language

Several years ago, a fellow member of the CW email list wrote about her idea for a book inspired by (as I recall) a Little League teammate of her son who did a lot of swearing. So much as to embarrass other young teen boys—which must really have been a lot.

This aspiring author foresaw a big challenge for a book about that situation, however. How could she convey a character’s foul language powerfully without using foul words? If she used those words, wouldn’t that undercut her message about the costs of using coarse language, and the ability to express oneself without it? On the other hand, if she used euphemisms, wouldn’t the book come across as namby-pamby and lose readers’ respect?

Polite people and craven mass media have long used:

  • watered-down terms that sound quaint: “Darn!” “Gosh!” “Jiminy Cricket!”
  • oaths that no real person says: “Golly gee!” “Holy chicken feathers, Batman!”
  • transparent substitutes that don’t fool anyone: “friggin’,” “bleeping”
But those don’t have the power of real profanity.

It’s easier in fantasy, where writers can come up with horrible curses for one society that carry no connotations for ours: “Hippakaloric!” “Grife!” “Belgium!” And of course comics have developed a symbolic language. But those solutions wouldn’t work for this writer.

Her remarks made me imagine and describe an electronic book that includes two texts: expurgated and unexpurgated. Readers might not see the fully profane language, either because of their choice or because of a parent or teacher’s choice. But they would know that that language exists, floating in some aether just below the words they see, only one access code away. Such a book would, I posited, be more powerful than a watered-down text alone.

The same technology could address Huckleberry Finn’s “nigger” problem. Mark Twain’s original text could exist alongside a version that doesn’t put that insulting word in readers’ eyes 200 times. Readers could choose which text to read, teachers which to read aloud or analyze in class—but the original text would still be part of the package.

How difficult would it be to create a two-level electronic book compatible with existing standards? I don’t know. But I see that the Nerdy Teacher reports there’s already an iPad edition of Huckleberry Finn with the original illustrations, for full historical context.

(Incidentally, now that I think of it, one of those illustrations had to be altered during printing because an engraver had rendered it obscene. That could be something else to put behind the access code.)


Eric said...

In the comic book "PS238", one character has a horrible problem with swearing, so his hoverchair has been fitted with a voice recognition system that analyzes his speech and immediately substitutes another word when he says something naughty. In the word balloons, these words are rendered in a different typeface, so you know (besides context) that he's swearing, and the malapropisms and anachronisms are pretty funny. Perhaps some sort of approach like this might work, until e-readers can easily handle the idea of two simultaneous texts (and it could also work for print editions).

J. L. Bell said...

Hmm. Perhaps Gribben should have addressed any problems raised by showing students the word “nigger” so often in Huck Finn not with an attempted seamless replacement, but with an obvious one.

Like the edition getting press today that replaces the word with “hipster.”