Monday, 24 March 2014

Censor - An Opinionated Assessment

A black censorship bar from Google


Noun & verb. Mid-16th century.
[Latin, from censere pronounce as an opinion, rate, assess.]

A1 noun. Historical. Either of two magistrates in ancient Rome who compiled censuses of its citizens, etc.,
and supervised public morals. M16

A2 noun. A person who exercises supervision or judgement over the conduct or morals of others. L16

A3 noun. A adverse critic; a person who censures or finds fault. Now rare. L16

A4(a) noun. An official with the power to suppress the whole or parts of books, plays, films, etc.,
on the grounds of obscenity, seditiousness, etc. M17

A4(b) noun. An official who, especially in times of war, is empowered to censor private letters, news reports, etc. E20

A5 noun. PSYCHOLOGY. [mistranslation of German Zensur censorship (Freud).] A mental power by which certain anxiety-provoking
unconscious ideas and memories are prevented from emerging into consciousness. E20

B verb trans. Act as censor of; officially inspect and make deletions or changes in (a book film, article, letter, etc.). L19

I seem to have an awful penchant for obscene literature. Right now, I'm rereading J.D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, taking perverse delight in the fact that this bildungsroman, with its profusion of damns, hells and goddams, was banned in Ireland in 1951. Variously, it has been charged by censors as being too sophisticated, gross, shocking and vulgar, and containing a plethora of sexual situations, moral issues and obscene language. Reading it again with modern eyes, the application of such scandalised adjectives to this book can do nothing but prompt a wry smile, a roll of the eyes, and an "Oh what they were thinking!" tut.

A portrait of J.D Salinger
Without Salinger and until Radiohead, who could resonate with disaffected youth?
The odd thing about censorship, however, and the reason I like its etymology, is it so keenly reflects the opinion and assessment of the censor; while my modern eyes might be bemused by the actions of the censors with regards a book like The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951 the eyes of the censors were modern, and they were examining it with their modern eyes. It makes me wonder whether what I find scandalous and obscene now will be scoffed at by my children. After all, my parents wouldn't let me watch The A-Team, what with its profusion of guns, explosions and "violence without consequences". While I would similarly not let my daughter watch violent programming - The Walking Dead is definitely out, for example - the opinion of what constitutes excessive violence is clearly different to that of my parents, as reflected in our differing censorious proscriptions.

A cartoon of a censor with scissors coming out of a box to the horror of artists and writers
"Resurrection of Censorship"
J.J Grandville 1832
Do please leave any comments below.
[comments may be censored]


  1. On the other hand, this post makes me recall books and films I would have loved when I was of a younger, and more innocent, mind and therefore would think the material was equally of a more innocent nature. However to watch and read them in the modern day, I am appalled to realise how much innuendos are pepperd within then

    1. Ah yes! And it may go the other way of course, with my horrified (now adult) children saying to me "You let me watch what!?"

  2. What makes me real sad is the censorship of children's stories and nursery rhymes.
    Here's an article I read on it last year:

    Banned books and nursery rhymes

    1. That link doesn't work unfortunately, Jingles.

      However, I have read about such censorship before, such as The Ugly Duckling being banned in some schools for being racist (the duck only becomes beautiful when it becomes white); however, I'm pretty sure that story was in The Daily Mail, so I'm not sure if I even believed it.

      However, I know as a child that I recounted some very racist schoolyard rhymes, without even understanding what particular words meant. A while back, my daughter did the same, and that prompted a sit down and explanation of why that isn't a nice word to use, so I suppose I'm already censoring old rhymes.

    2. Sorry about the link - it worked when I previewed it!
      If you're interested here it is

  3. Now there's a noun that makes one shiver.
    I was focusing on this "An official who, especially in times of war, is empowered" and thinking how that power, once given, or allowed, can't and won't stay confined to a determined time or situation.
    This year we'll celebrate (in my Country... I'm wondering if I bother you always bringing up my country? but that's the experience I have; all the rest is given me through the censors' - several - and might be biased) well, like I was saying this year we celebrate 40 years of freedom from dictatorship and even today younger generations shudder at the mention of the blue pencil (used by censors. they didn't use red because it was associated to Communism-another thing to be censored in any form) used by the Censors without any guide or rule. In fact, depending on the cultural knowledge of the censor thus was the censored material.
    A month ago I watched "The Book Thief" and there's a scene that show us how it's not just a case of opinion. The opinion of the censor has consequences that go far than cutting this or that more scandalous or violent scene...
    Poor men. Having to read scenes they couldn't allow “touching” and corrupting others.

    PS - Wasn't there a movement, or idea, to rewrite, to abolish terms, in Huckleberry Finn because they aren't today socially accepted? How can you rewrite history in such a way? You shouldn't make the same mistakes, I agree, but Mark Twain isn't here to defend his work, which right anyone has to touch it?! You're right not letting kids watch Walking Death - I can't even watch the promo ;)...

    1. Yes, old works that use unacceptable terms have been edited before (I wrote a post about an example of this on the word 'bowdlerize'). That really is a serious issue of censorship, because you can't pretend that those words, themes or ideas weren't commonly used in the past, nor can you pretend that language hasn't changed - as if what is unacceptable now was similarly unacceptable in Twain's day.