Dictionary app endures approval nightmare over dirty words

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Thirty-seven years ago, the late comedian George Carlin listed the seven words you can’t say on television. Times haven’t changed: today, they’re words you apparently can’t say on the iPhone, either. The latest bizarre decision to come down the App Store pike is the strange case of Ninjawords Dictionary, which has had its vulgar content exorcised.

Matchstick Software’s $2 Ninjawords is a simple, lightweight, well-designed dictionary application. It also, upon first submission to the App Store, contained a repertoire of dirty, dirty words. You know, the kind of words that you could only hear on the playground, on television, or while your dad watched the baseball game.

A search for a well-known expletive yielded no results in Ninjawords...

According to Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, Apple provided Matchstick with screenshots of said vulgar words along with a rejection notice, saying that it violated the App Store’s obscenity restrictions. The approval process as a whole ended up taking two months before Ninjawords finally made it to the store, along with a 17+ rating—because it contains words.

Yes, words. At one point, as kids, we all took a little bit of glee looking up dirty words in the dictionary, right? After all, they were just words. The only real danger was that you might get your mouth washed out with soap if you were careless enough to use them around adults—who, of course, are perfectly familiar with them, no matter what they might claim. A few of the words removed from Ninjawords application even have completely innocuous meanings in addition to their slangier uses.

What’s more, there are plenty of dictionary applications on the App Store that don’t suffer from this overzealous scrutiny: Hampton Catlin’s Dictionary!, Dictionary.com’s client, and several pricier “name-brand” dictionaries such as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Webster’s Third International Unabridged Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary. The free WordWeb English dictionary app implements a vulgarity filter that you can switch on and off (albeit, along with a rather perplexing error message).

Matchstick developer Phil Crosby told Macworld in an e-mail that the company is considering implementing a similar filter in a future version, but didn’t have the resources to do so the first time around. “We never suspected that a simple English dictionary would be met with such rigorous rejection,” Crosby wrote.

...while a search for the same expletive in OS X's Dictionary yielded 45 results.

On the Mac side, OS X’s included Dictionary application—which uses the New Oxford American Dictionary—includes all the objectionable words Apple’s reviewer complained about as well as many more colorful variations. Not to mention the myriad Web-based dictionaries you can access from the iPhone’s Safari Web browser.

So what’s the problem here? Red Sweater Software developer (and former Apple employee) Daniel Jalkut weighed in on his blog that the real culprit may be the way that Apple employs its reviewers, by encouraging a system whereby reviewers are rewarded for finding violations. Another Apple engineer-turned-indie developer, Sci-Fi Hi-Fi’s Buzz Andersen, concurred on his own blog, speculating that Apple staffed its review teams with “a bunch of people who can quickly go down a very literal laundry list of things to check, but don’t have the time or expertise to make nuanced judgments about an app’s suitability.”

This isn't the first time Apple's had problems with an app over obscene words: the company once rejected an update to popular Twitter application Tweetie because an expletive was present on Twitter's site at the time, an issue that was later ironed out. While Apple is understandably concerned about its image as a family-friendly company, there is such a thing as taking that too far.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the situation.

It’s another example in the rapidly accruing list of troubling App Store approval incidents, and it highlights the problems caused by the lack of clear, consistent rules for developers. Of course, as long as the company continues racking up thousands of apps and millions of downloads, Apple may merely consider problems like these irritating gnats buzzing around its head.

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