Saturday, October 26, 2002

Synonyms, Censorship and Software

In an essay in The New York Times (�Bowdlerized by Microsoft,� October 23, 2001) Mark Goldblatt brought to light a curious aspect of the thesaurus that�s part of Microsoft Word 2000-namely, that it seems to have a built-in political-correctness censor. Type in fool, as Goldblatt did, and you�ll get nothing but the verb trick; type in jerk and you�ll get yank, jolt, tug, and twitch. No noun synonyms for these words appear at all-and no synonyms whatsoever appear if you search for dolt, dunce, idiot, goon, numbskull, or twit. Goldblatt asked Microsoft for an explanation and eventually got the following disquieting response in an e-mail: �Microsoft�s approach regarding the spell checker dictionary and thesaurus is to not suggest words that may have offensive uses or provide offensive definitions for any words. The dictionary and spell checker is updated with each release of Office to ensure that the tools reflect current social and cultural environments.�

This might annoy me less if the dictionary and thesaurus embedded in this product otherwise showed mastery of the essentials of good English. However, I learned years ago, long before Word 2000, not to trust the suggestions offered by the spell checker and especially not by the grammar checker. The types of sentences and "errors" it flags show clearly that someone took an elementary school grammer book and encoded the rules into the software, without any appreciation for how the rules might apply (or not apply) to sophisticated adult writing.

Some people bemoan the "deterioration of the language" when they hear young people using "like" when they mean "said" but I worry about the other side of that coin as much or more. I worry about people who think they can understand and control the evolution of a language by codifying a juvenile conception of correctness, or by proscribing "unacceptable" changes or worst of all, arranging for them to disappear, through censorship or editing.

The Microsoft employees that designed this arrogant thesaurus unfortunately took their design principle from many other features embedded in Microsoft products. The company operates on the principle that because they have developed good and popular software products, they can consider themselves the ultimate authority for all questions, not just about the usability or applicability of software. In their quest to make software more usable and more helpful, they steamroll right over the user, who in many cases becomes the "spam in a can" that simply justifies the existence of the product but does not need to take charge of it or decide how it will operate.

This infuriating methodology does not prevent me from using and recommending Microsoft products. They do have many wonderful features for ease-of-use and power. I do however advise, as with real life, that the user of Microsoft products should maintain a healthy skepticism when operating these packages and a mindful awareness of their potential limitations and restrictions.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


Has anyone ever recommended a book to you, saying "I KNOW you will love it" but when you picked it up, you found it dull, boring, bizarre or even unreadable? I came across a quote that sums up this experience and simultaneously gives an insight into how general semantics would explain this phenomenon:

No two persons ever read the same book.

-Edmund Wilson, critic (1895-1972)

Since we often pass a book from hand to hand, Wilson probably does not mean we each read physically different books. Instead, of course, he refers to the act of reading. No two persons read the same book because each brings a unique perspective and life experience to the process of reading and interpreting the words in the book. The idea that each life results in a different perspective seems so apparent and simple when you say it out loud, and yet most of us fail to apply it with sufficient awareness and diligence in every day life.

So how do you recommend a book without setting the situation up for failure? A general semanticist would say "I found this book interesting, readable, enjoyable, thought provoking, full of excitement or curiosity, in short, I liked this book." If that suffices to pique the interest of another, good enough. If the other wishes more information, one can elaborate with specifics--"the story of a dog and the boy who loved him", "discusses the development of the alphabet and how reading became a widely practised art," etc. Of course, even at this point, the recommendation has strayed into the highly subjective,since another person reading the "same" book might not see the story of the dog as anything like the central thread of the book.

Stop at "I liked this book," and you cannot go wrong.

Monday, October 14, 2002

National Dictionary Day

Noah Webster came into the world on October 16. His name has since become synonymous with dictionaries, and now we celebrate his birthday as National Dictionary Day. Go ahead, crack open a dictionary and look up a word, just for fun. Or better still, just open a dictionary at random and read a few of the words. You will most likely learn something, and not necessarily just a definition.

Words hold the history not only of our language but of our culture. As the culture changes, words emerge to describe new ideas, or fall away as their subjects fade into history. Sometimes a word evolves into new meanings to keep up with new usages.

If you like to use the internet (and you probably do, or you wouldn't have stopped by here...) you can satisfy your dictionary browsing needs at OneLook, an incredible dictionary compendium site.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002


Everything you've learned in school as 'obvious' becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
-R. Buckminster Fuller, engineer, designer, and architect (1895-1983)