Taboo toponymy

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On the 23rd, the New York Times ran a "fun Friday" piece on British place names that are arguably offensive: Sarah Lyall, "No Snickering: That Road Sign Means Something Else". With photos of signs for Butt Hole Road (South Yorkshire), Pratts Bottom (Kent), and Penistone (South Yorkshire again — no, it's not pronounced the way you think), and mentions of a number of others. The story was filed from the village of Crapstone, in Devon.

The height of silliness was reached in a reported directive from the Lewes District Council (East Sussex) against new "street names which could give offense", including Corfe Close. Lyall writes:

(What is wrong with Corfe Close, you might ask? The guidelines mention the hypothetical residents of No. 4, with their unfortunate hypothetical address, "4 Corfe Close." To find the naughty meaning, you have to repeat the first two words rapidly many times, preferably in the presence of your fifth-grade classmates.)

It probably helps to do this in a non-rhotic accent. Even so, the story sounds contrived. (Surely there are some Corfu Roads, Streets, Lanes, etc. in the U.K.)

There are, of course, people who collect such undignified names. Like Ed Hurst and Rob Bailey, authors of Rude Britain and Rude UK,

which list arguably offensive places names — some so arguably offensive that, unfortunately, they cannot be printed here

Ah, just when you were experiencing a moment of delight at seeing butt hole, titty, and crap on the pages of the famously prudish NYT, you discover that the paper will Go Only So Far, and draws the veil over stuff coarser than this — while ostentatiously drawing attention to its tough line on taboo vocabulary. It just makes you want to check out the Hurst/Bailey books.

No mention, of course, of the great Scunthorpe scandal, which we've alluded to only in passing on Language Log, here. (Thanks to Ben Zimmer for reminding me of the phenomenon.) This was an episode in the annals of automated searching. Automated searching works either on whole words or (much more dangerously) on substrings, and its consequences are either to replace putatively offensive material by an inoffensive substitute (some more neutral item, like butt instead of ass, or a taboo-avoidance substitute, like a*s or *** or (bleep)) or to filter out the message containing the putatively offensive material. So it was, according to the story here, that in 1996 AOL subscribers in the town of Scunthorpe (North Lincolnshire) were blocked for a while from web access, because of the cunt in Scunthorpe. (Many people have found the name Scunthorpe risible on independent grounds.) Some other entertaining substring-search examples up through 2007 can be found here, and note this plangent comment from a reader of Michael Quinion's World Wide Words, in issue #606 of 9/27/08: "I work at Nipissing University [in Canada]. We can't enter our domain name … on some places."

(The Cupertino effect, about which we've posted about many times on Language Log, is a close relative of the Scunthorpe problem. See also the many Language Log postings on automated asterisking.)

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