Mind your language

The Aesopian language of algospeak

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

16 April 2022

9:00 AM

To evade algorithms that hunt down forbidden words, users of platforms like TikTok employ cryptic synonyms. So deadbecomes unalive, and the pandemic becomes panini or Panda Express. A technology journalist in her mid-thirties, Taylor Lorenz, drew attention to the trend last week in the Washington Post, calling the vocabulary ‘algospeak’.

But why should anyone be banned for using the word dead? Because young people in chatrooms online discuss suicide, and since this is thought to encourage it, online proprietors try to weed out messages with giveaway words. Their algorithms penetrate chatrooms like those metal jellyfish in the Matrix films attacking the spaceship. (My husband, rather worryingly, knows that they are called Sentinels. I have never seen him watching The Matrix, though it always seems to be on television.)

Similarly, references to the pandemic are suspect because they can reflect Covid deniers’ proselytism. And by a process I don’t understand, people who post sex videos are able to make money out of them, so they apparently combat attempts to obliterate ‘unsafe’ content by replacing LGBTQ with the phrase leg booty.

I can’t say I find this verbal substitution convincing. Even the dimmest Sentinel can be adjusted to lock on to seggs where its replaces sex. It reminds me of the explanation of Polari (once the cant of theatres, fairgrounds and homosexual groups) as a way of disguising meaning from eavesdropping police. Yet the police were the people most conversant with the slang.

There is, though, a historical parallel for verbal substitutions and allegories to evade censors and hide forbidden politics. In his blog, the Polish writer Mikołaj Gliński has discussed subtexts in Polish literature under Russian rule in the 19th century. Thus in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis (1896), Nero’s Rome stood for Russia and the Christian martyrs for Poles. Gliński terms this Aesopian.

It’s true that cryptic allegory goes back a long way. Thomas More, in his Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (1534), used a tale of Hungarians under Turkish invaders to stand for Catholics under anti-papal oppressors. There is a whole theory of similar subterranean texts in Shakespeare.

Suicide clubs, sexploiters and political idealists use common methods to evade the censors in a world of spies and algorithms.

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