What I did know was that Scunthorpe is in Lincolnshire, on England’s eastern side, and is the country’s largest steel processing centre. I’ve never been there, though, and of its problem I knew nothing.
I do now, thanks to etymology-geek Tom Chatfield’s book, Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World.
Turns out “the Scunthorpe problem” isn’t confined to that eastern English town—it’s a geeky label emanating from something that happened there in the late 1990s. Its definition gave me such a chuckle that my coffee ended up in a lot more places than it should have.
Explained Tom in the UK’s Guardian at the time of his book’s release: “Computing can be as much combat as collaboration and the Scunthorpe problem is a perfect example.”
The stories behind sleek technological terms are often “messily human”, he added, (which of course is why he could write a whole book about them).
“Entirely innocent words can fall victim to machine filth filters thanks to unfortunate sequences of letters within them—and, in Scunthorpe’s case, it’s the second to fifth letters that create the difficulty.”
Well, of course!
So bad is the problem that, at one time, the poor townsfolk were prevented by global internet service AOL from setting up user accounts. Its effect eventually became known in cyber circles as the Scunthorpe problem—a dubious honour, I think.
“… those who live in Penistone, South Yorkshire—or people with surnames like Cockburn—may be equally familiar with algorithms’ censorious tendencies,” notes the author.
He doesn’t mention what those so-called filth filters made of Britain’s myriad other “mucky” names. Some of them are so colourful they’re enough to make a bishop blush.
Take your pick from such horrors as the hamlet (we’d call it a dorp in South Africa, I guess) of Shitterton in Dorset; Crapstone in Devon; or Old Sodbury in Gloucestershire.
Shitterton—which supposedly means little town on the stream of a midden or sewer—topped the list of most embarrassing British place names in a recent survey. I wouldn’t mind betting those who live there pooh-poohed that result (sorry!). They’re so proud of the name that most of the 50-odd households chipped in around R280 each to have it chiselled into a solid marble block heavy enough to end repeated thefts of the sign bearing it.
Such schoolboy snigger-inducing places as Brokenwind in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Backside, also in Aberdeenshire will, of course, easily slip through the filters. As will Scratchy Bottom in Dorset; Happy Bottom, also in Dorset; Sandy Balls in southern England’s New Forest area; Golden Balls in Oxfordshire; Pratts Bottom in Kent; and North Piddle in Worcestershire.
Author Philip K Dick, on whose books several films have been based, including Minority Report and the cult sci-fi classic Bladerunner, isn’t always so lucky. Only this week, a list sent to me of some of his books arrived exactly as follows:
“Philip K ~censored~ – The Divine Invasion
Philip K ~censored~ – Radio Free Albemuth
Philip K ~censored~ – A Scanner Darkly
Philip K ~censored~ – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K ~censored~ – The Man in the High Castle
Philip K ~censored~ – The Simulacra
Reminds me of the time my own name was jokingly “censored” on 5fm’s (then Radio 5) Chuckle and Chat Show: I was introduced on-air as Stevie Bleepson! – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)
The Rude Map – graphic from The Sun newspaper