The Perils of Technology, iPad Edition

(Photo: FHKE)

These days, I read a lot of books on an iPad 2 using the Kindle app. It is for the most part a very good experience, especially for recreational reading. As millions of others have noted, having an electronic device loaded up with a mini-library of e-books is especially valuable while traveling, which is when I do a lot of my reading.

The other day, on vacation with the family, I came across a pitfall. I was reading the old football novel North Dallas Forty (thanks to Henry for the suggestion, and all of you for other suggestions). It’s pretty entertaining — especially the race stuff and drug stuff. As it happened, my 9-year-old daughter was curled up beside me reading her book (The Doll People). She took at look at what I was reading. Her eyes immediately found a four-letter word.

“Hey,” she said. “That’s a bad word!”

“Yes, yes it is,” I said. (What are you supposed to say? Advice, pls.)

And then, out of instinct, I covered up the offending word with my thumb. What this was supposed to accomplish I do not know; she had already seen the word. But even worse, I didn’t just cover up the word — I actually touched the word on the screen with my thumb. Which, helpfully, pulls up a dictionary definition of the word:

VULGAR SLANG v. [trans.] 1 have sexual intercourse with (someone).

<SPECIAL USAGE> [intrans.] (of two people) have sexual intercourse.

2 ruin or damage (something).

Thank you, technology. You are indeed a double-edged sword.


Just be glad it didn't pronounce the word for you also.

Eric M. Jones.

Explain to her that the author was writing what the person said, and the person was using bad language.

People sometimes do use angry language that generally is not to be used in polite company.

What words that are used is a social convention, and people do make judgments based on the language others use.

Kim Templin

You really thumbed that up, Dubner.

Pup, MD

Essentially, there are no bad words. But there are words that make other people upset and hurt their feelings so you have to be careful using them because it's not nice to hurt other people's feelings.

Completely skirts the puritanism and ridiculousness we have towards language while being very honest about why it's not always a great idea to use certain words.

Neil (SM)

Obviously she already recognizes the word and knows it's bad, so it sounds like no further explanation is necessary!

If I had to, maybe I'd try to just be truthful. Explain that there are some rough, crude characters in this story, and those characters sometimes use more explicit language that would be unbecoming of a young girl, or of anyone in polite company? (ugh that sounds stuffy)


LOL... Classic

Basil White

Sometimes to tell the truth, writers have to quote the bad things that people say.

You handled this much classier than when my son asked me where babies come from. I had him watch the tape.


I'm going to take Carlin's attitude on this one, his idea was that f*ck wasn't a bad word, there are no bad words. Bad thoughts, bad actions, but words are just words. F*ck implies being close to another person (the first definition) and is a corollary to "love" (as in make love I'm sure), and that it is nicer than the word "kill" which implies violence and shows up more frequently in movies, so he wanted to replace every occurrence of the word "kill" with "f*ck". Imagine, "We're gonna kill you sherif, and we're gonna kill you real slow..."

On a related peril of technology (more towards the platform in this case)... when I bought a kindle 2, my already high reading rate increased around 30-40%. When I switched to reading on the iPad I found I was easily distracted by my surroundings or stopped reading due to easily switching apps/activities. Anyone else experience this?

Alex C

Not a pitfall at all... an on-the-spot unexpected teaching opportunity.


Your prolem has nothing to do with technology. I am certain that there are some bad words in the King James version of the bible. Back in the day when reading English was the new thing and Latin was the old version, I am certain this problem also occurred. Some young daughter looking over dad's shoulder that could not read the latin version caught dad reading a bad word in the new English bible. His thumb probably also then covered the word.



Maybe, like me, you've seen a great film that would have been just as splendid (or even better), except that the director thought it VITALLY IMPORTANT TO HIS ARTISTIC VISION to insert his one allotted (for PG-13) f-word! (The most recent X-men film was a victim of this.)

You know what? My young son would have LOVED to have seen that film...but he won't because of the VITAL IMPORTANCE OF THE DIRECTOR'S ARTISTIC VISION!

(By the way, is my sarcasm coming through?)

Therefore, I'd like to offer a great idea that could be just as useful for e-books as for DVDs: Why not offer viewers/readers the OPTION of "bleeping out" bad words from e-book text...or the chance to watch the PG version of an R-rated film?

The f-word would be rendered as "f***," perhaps. On DVDs, profanity would be bleeped or edited out, as would sexuality or violence that crossed over in R-rated territory.

What's not to like? The director's vision is preserved in the R-rated version...but at the same time, more people RENT or BUY his film so that they can enjoy a slightly tamer version of an otherwise great film.

The "X-Men: First Class" film was an enjoyable film...except for Hugh Jackman's cameo in which he says, "F*** off!" Oh, how clever! How delightful! See how brave the director was? See how VITALLY IMPORTANT that word was to the entire "integrity" of the film?

A simple program could edit e-books in a split-second, removing/replacing the offending words with something less abrasive. And 20 extra minutes of editing can change an R-rated film to a PG-13...and another 5 minutes to a PG--perhaps making a great film more accessible the thousands of viewers.

Just my thoughts.



It was already done, by a group of right wing Christians, who tried distributing their cleaned-up versions via rental stores. They were sued for, I believe, copyright infringement. See - check the section on "manually re-edited films".



I believe I read of that. But what I'm talking about is the DVD giving the renter/buyer the OPTION (perhaps under the SETUP menu) to see the original version...or the PG-13 or PG version (as edited by the DIRECTOR).

Just seems that a lot of people could then view a movie that they otherwise would not have viewed due to too much profanity, sex, violence, etc.

Obviously, there are some movies that likely cannot be reasonably edited to a reduced rating due to content. For instance, the violence in "Saving Private Ryan" is absolutely essential to the story. Spielberg WANTED people to see the price that was paid. Same with a pornography--there is no PG-version of it...or else why would anyone rent it?

But like I said, on "X-men: First Class," the elimination of a SINGLE WORD would have made the film accessible to more young people, perhaps upping the earnings of the film substantially. Really, is a SINGLE WORD detrimental to the entire film--especially when that word could have been changed to something much less offensive?

It wouldn't be copyright infringement if the DIRECTOR (again, taking about 20 more minutes of time) offered MULTIPLE VERSIONS of the same film. There could be the "Director's Cut," the "Theatrical Release" version, and, if necessary, a version that is PG-13 or PG.

What's not to like? Very few artistic visions are going to suffer just because a sex scene is less graphic, or a curse word here and there is removed.


Hexe Froschbein

The f-word is one of those enigmas of life -- using one of the most widely desired acts of humanity as a standard complaint about everything going sure is weird.

As a fun experiment, declare cussing to be legal for a week, provided that the f-word is substituted with 'chocolate' or 'wonderful' where grammatically appropriate :)


This sounds like my middle school librarian. Whenever she caught one of us using a "bad word" she made us go to the dictionary and look it up.

tOM Trottier

Ah, "bad" words! When I brought up my two boys, I told him that words like those should be reserved for when you really feel angry. If you use them all the time, then you will not have any special words to use. Of course, all words have various connotations as well as denotations in context. What does Freakonomics have to say about BAD words?


I'm not buying into the idea that "there are no bad words". If enough of a given society feels it's a bad word, then it's a bad word in that society. No one is saying a "bad word" means universally bad to every society or every living person in the world. You don't need a unanimous agreement, just a consensus. The word C-word (*unt), for instance, is one of the most vulgar words in the US, but in the UK it has a different meaning and is used somewhat frequently. A word's "badness" should be related to how the given society views the world. And just because a society deems a word "bad" doesn't mean it should be outlawed, or has some magical power over others... it's just a damn word with an effect. To ignore the effect is dishonest and most likely, IMO, due to the person wanting to seem enlightened, open-minded, etc., when really it means none of those things.


On the "are there bad words" part of this discussion, one can look to Tourette's Syndrome for insight into how the brain distinguishes profanity from regular speech. It is not a coincidence that sufferers spew obscene words, not just random English words. FMRI research following this path has shown that different parts of the brain "light up" when speaking obscene words than regular words.

Dave Cornford

I think the answer is presented by the technology itself. Whenever tempted to let fly with the f-bomb, just yell "Vulgar Slang!" or "VS!" for short. Could work.


Steevn, I think you're mistaken about the C-word in the UK. It's used to refer to the body part or someone you want to really denigrate, and is about the last swear word to gradually sneak into broadcasting. If used in conversation you're being about as rude as possible.