Victor Margolin

Mr. Shinkey by Lucien Stairs, age 5

Writing an e-mail to a friend recently, I happened to mention the word ‘pornography’ in my note. The word turned red as I wrote it. Then the words that followed reverted to black as I moved on with my thoughts. This struck me as odd and I intentionally wrote ‘pornography’ again. It popped up red. My curiosity was piqued so I typed a crude word for intercourse and sure enough, it turned red too.

I wanted to explore this issue of colored words further and began to examine the features of my e-mail program. I discovered one that allows a writer to highlight a word in one of five colors. I chose green to highlight the word ‘think.’ Sure enough, I had added another color to the text. So, I thought, maybe I can turn ‘pornography’ green as well. I tried but it didn’t work. ‘Pornography’ remained defiantly red. I began to wonder why this unwelcome identification of certain words with the color red was in my e-mail program to begin with. Who devised this feature and for what purpose? Was it to amass a vast repository of red words that were inextricably linked to sinners? And if so, who was going to review all these indiscretions and what punishment would be meted out? How many red words had to turn up in an e-mail message before consequences kicked in? One, two, or twenty-three? And did a repetition of the same word count each time one used it or would a writer be punished for the totality of different red words. If I knew that I could repeat the same word without consequence, I might pepper a text with it just to fight back. What is as disconcerting as having certain words turn red is that the complete vocabulary of red words is not public. Does this sound like a George Carlin rant? You have to discover the lexicon of depravity as you write.

As an experiment, I set up an e-mail to another friend (which I did not send) and typed in the words for a bunch of male and female body parts that are located both above and below the Mason-Dixon line as well as fore and aft. Sure enough, they all turned red. Then I typed some equivalent and related words in Spanish – ‘puta, ’ which means ‘whore’ and ‘cojones,’ the word for balls. ‘Puta,’ turned up purple, which means that the program did not recognize it as an English word, but ‘cojones,’ turned up red. In English, the word ‘whore’ turned red but “hooker” and “prostitute” did not. Nor did lady of the evening. I tried another experiment, this time using various colloquial words for body parts. The colloquial three-letter word for one’s rear end turned red, even though it has multiple meanings including an animal resembling a small horse with long ears. By contrast, the proper word for this part of the human anatomy, “anus,” escaped the censorious color-coding, although the polite word for the male sexual organ did not. It turned bright red as soon as I typed it. Then I typed in some Yiddish equivalents for this particular body part like “putz” “petzel” and “shmuck” and these all turned purple instead of red (This is beginning to sound like the symptoms of some undesirable illness). However, “butt” turned red, even though its anatomical reference is only a colloquial meaning, which is not even mentioned in many dictionaries. It seems that the cataloguer of forbidden words permanently tainted perfectly legitimate ones like “butt” and “ass” with impropriety, thus preventing well-intentioned writers from using them freely in their initial and proper senses. If I want to make reference to someone who butts his against a wall, must “butt” turn red every time I make the reference, thus contaminating a perfectly innocent statement?

Fueled with an overwhelming passion to resist this morally oppressive system, I tried typing some suspect words with additional letters such as ‘pornographyx’ and they did not turn red. So I figured out that I could say anything I wanted and remain undetected so long as I changed a letter or added one to the word. Or I could type the word in a language other than English, i.e. “pornographie” in French. and the word would remain under the radar as a purple intruder from the realm of foreign speech into the moralistic universe of e-mail English. I began to ruminate on why the color red was chosen to call attention to these verbal indiscretions. Red has a lot of meanings and it is not clear from its use in this context, which meaning is intended. One might imagine that it signals an alert, suggesting that something bad will follow from one’s use of the forbidden word. In another sense, as it is evoked when the words for anatomical parts are written, the color may denote a kind of physical punishment or soreness.

To follow this latter metaphor, the foreign equivalents of suspect English words turn purple, which might suggest a comparable consequence. One might argue that the folks who devised this censorious e-mail application were wiser not to reveal the totality of forbidden words rather than to make the list explicit. Judging from the inconsistencies in their color-coding, the range of words that could be reddened is vast. Perhaps some disgruntled users of the program should form a social network to share a list of reddened words and suggest a lexicon of subversive alternatives. There is usually a way to resist technological systems but as they become more pervasive, more ingenuity is required. Oh, one technique I just thought of is writing backwards. Try it.

Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding editor of DesignIssues, is a regular contributor to Design-Altruism-Project.

One Response to “The Other (Red) Campaign”

  1. Casey Canon Says:

    I personally don’t understand why the designers of these email features decided to color code certain words in the first place. Obviously the color red is “warning” the author, maybe subliminally linking Satan or “evilness” to the word… but what’s the point? Is the color transferred in the sent email for the receiver to see? I’m pretty sure the author is aware of his/her good and bad language. It’s also surprising that such insignificant words like “butt” are flagged with today’s ever accepting culture of sex and violence. But, if these “word editors” feel they are making a difference in people’s speech, more power to them.