Filtering information

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Ben Zimmer "Donald Trump and Others With ‘No Filter’", WSJ 6/26/2015:

When Donald Trump gave a speech announcing his candidacy for president last week, he seemed to utter whatever thoughts popped into his uniquely coiffed head. […]

The “filter” metaphor evokes the image of a straining mechanism functioning on a person’s thoughts and feelings, testing the appropriateness of those inner mental states before they can be verbalized to the world. […]

The earliest example of a “filterless” celebrity that I was able to track down appeared in a 1986 Newsweek cover story on Robin Williams. Larry Brezner, a partner in the talent agency that then managed the comedian, said, “There’s no filter between his brain and his mouth.”

This began a few days ago, around the LLOG virtual water cooler, when Victor Mair pointed to a phrase from Jason Linkins, "Joe Biden Reality Show Petition Hits White House Website", HuffPo 1/24/2013: "His most ardent fans love his lack of filter and his giddy panache." Victor asked

I can guess what "filter" means here, but have you ever seen it used this way?

I responded with some early OED citations for the idea of filtering information:

1837   A. Alison Hist. Europe VI. xlvii. 370   The whole information..was permitted to reach the people, strained through the Imperial filters.

1873   H. B. Tristram Land of Moab xii. 228   A heavy conversation of ponderous compliments passed through the dragoman filter.

Ben Zimmer wrote

Though the major dictionaries have yet to take note, this sense of "filter" is pretty common these days. The idea is that a person normally has a kind of mental filter that mediates between thoughts and utterances, so it's notable when that filter is lacking. […]

I might look into this for a future Wall Street Journal column!

And Geoff Nunberg responded:

It seems to me that the emergece of this notion, if not the use of the word “filter" itself, is a reflection of the late 18th-c. philosophy of mind that made ‘information’ "the sort of self-sufficient and politically important substance that could be harvested by figures like Sinclair, scattered by corresponding societies, transported by "the public prints," which Cobbett called "those vehicles of information," and eventually, as Paine reported, carried on the [line-of-sight GN] telegraph.” This from a paper by my colleague (and co-teacher of a course called “Concepts of Information”) to appear in Jrnl of the Hist. of Ideas. I’ve independently argued that emergence of this sense is blurred in the OED’s sense 2a ("Knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact…”), which confuses the effect of communication with the substance communicated.  

The larger point, I think, is to naturalize “information” across all its uses (as, e.g., Glieck does in his book, which I reviewed in the NYT) is to lose sight of the point that ‘information’ as an autonomous, quantifiable, and “objective’ substance is a modern notion whose emergence had political and social implications, and which is embedded in metaphors like this one.

Somewhere along the way, Victor put in:

I love the word "dragoman":[Middle English dragman, from Old French drugeman, from Medieval Latin dragumannus, from MedievalGreek dragoumanos, from Arabic tarjumān, from Aramaic targəmānā, from Akkadian targumannu,interpreter; see rgm in Semitic roots.]


To say, speak, call, shout, contest, lay claim to.

1. dragoman, from Arabic tarjumān, translator, from Aramaic targəmānā, from Akkadian targumannu, interpreter, either from Akkadian ragāmu, to speak, call, contest, or from an earlier Semitic verb in a derived stem, *t-rgm, to speak to one another, translate.

2. Targum, from Mishnaic Hebrew targûm, translation, from Aramaic targəmā (< *targumā), back-formation from targəmānā (see above).


  1. Rubrick said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    Of course, someone with truly no filter between thoughts and words would surely present as a raving lunatic. I mean, moreso than Trump.

  2. Ray said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

    in the land of Instagram, hashtagging an image as #nofilter carries tons of meaning. (meaning, the user didn't use an Instagram filter for this photo, it's as real and spontaneous and uneditorialized as can be, both in subject and technique)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    D. Pan suggests the following Chinese equivalents:

    Filter between brain and mouth

      zìlǜ 自滤 ("self-filter") — his own coinage

    Without filter

      kǒu wú zhēlán 口无遮拦 (lit., "[one's] mouth has no bars / railings")

      xìnkǒukāihé 信口开河 (lit., "trust [your] mouth and let it flow like a river") — commonly used in reference to someone who says things without careful thought or who makes thoughtless statements

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

    The Zimmer piece at the WSJ website is behind a paywall. Is it in the hard-copy paper and if so can someone provide a page reference? (There's a copy of today's issue in my office's reception area, but I couldn't find this piece on a quick skim.)

    Obviously the underlying phenomenon of certain individuals frequently saying things that other people might think but would refrain from blurting out significantly predates 1986. The "filter" phrasing seems so natural to me that I can't immediately come up with an earlier idiom to express the same concept, but it seems like there ought to have been some.

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    June 26, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

    You can get around the paywall by Googling the headline and clicking the link there.

    The column is in the Review section of the Weekend edition — the page image will be available here on Saturday.

  6. K Chang said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 3:34 am

    @Victor Mair — I always thought 信口开河 is more like "bullsh**ing" or "you gotta be sh**ing me" rather than speaking without a filter.

  7. Anthea Fleming said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 5:45 am

    I believe that in Homer the phrase "What nonsense!" in literal translation is more "What a word has escaped the fence of your teeth!"
    (Alas, I have no Greek, modern or ancient, so this is hearsay only)

  8. Ian Jackson said,

    June 27, 2015 @ 6:44 am

    @J. W. Brewer: In the Iliad Odysseus says to Atreus in an argument something like "what is this word that has broken through the fence of your teeth", so the idea of some kind of protective barrier separating internal thought from the external world, and the idea that that perimeter can (undesirably) break down in certain people or situations, is certainly an old one.

  9. richardelguru said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 5:57 am

    …herkos odonton…

  10. Ginger Yellow said,

    June 29, 2015 @ 6:58 am

    Some of the biggest Youtube celebrities tour a live variety show called #NoFilter, used in this sense of course.

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