Wednesday, November 25, 2009


It was highly entertaining to follow internal email threads about the no-profanity glitch that the Washington Post covered today. Here's the piece:

Get the *&#@ outta here: A Google Books glitch

Google Books is ^&#%$@ up. And by "^&#%$@ up" I mean a vulgar expression that means "messed up."

Jon Simon, a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary whom I wrote about last month, noticed the problem. He was trying to find examples of "$#@& happens," the phrase made famous in "Forrest Gump." When he first searched the expression last week he got about 50 hits. When he searched a few days later, he got more than 50,000. The problem? Google Books wasn't searching on "$#@& happens," it was just searching on "happens." He searched for "bull$#@&" and Google Books returned books with "bull" in their pages but none with "$#@&." Ditto lots of other words he could think of (and, as a trained word dick, Jon could think of a lot).

Censorship? Apparently not. "It's a bug," Google's Gabriel Stricker told me. You can still find plenty of vulgarities in books if you go to the main Google search site, enter a bad word then click on "Show options" then "Books" when the results come up. The glitch is confined to the Google Books search site.

With the contents of millions of titles searchable online, Google Books has made the jobs of lexicographers--people who study the origin and spread of words and phrases--a lot easier. Take Jesse Sheidlower, for example. A Manhattan-based editor at large for the OED, Jesse is the author of "The F Word"--"for which Google Books was very helpful," he said.

"Words are words," said Jesse, explaining why dictionaries include even those arrangements of letters that you would never utter in front of your mother or Sunday school teacher. "It doesn't matter if people regard them as ungrammatical or vulgar or racist. The important thing is looking at the evidence and reporting on it. We don't keep things out because they're offensive in any way. If these words are out there they go into the dictionary."

To which I say, ^&#% yeah.

"Google Books will be restored to profanity-enabled normalcy in the days ahead," Gabriel Stricker wrote in an e-mail to me. "Cheers to your love of words -- the bad ones included!"

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