The Seven Words You Can’t Say In A Dragon iPhone App

Late yesterday, Nuance released an iPhone edition of their Dragon NaturallySpeaking software. What wonderful news! Dragon is the gold standard in text-to-speech. You say it, Dragon turns it into text.

Having it on the iPhone seems like a strong win. I’ve no complaints about the iPhone’s virtual keyboard. I can type faster on my iPhone than I can with any physical mobile keyboard. All the same, the fantasy of dictating a lengthy email to a speech-to-text utility instead of tapping the whole thing out sent me rocketing over to the App Store to download my free copy.

Minutes later, after I’d installed the app and given it a few quick sentences, I was impressed. The software only seems to have a few drawbacks:

1) It only works in short bursts of text. You can get in about two sentences before the app has to stop listening and start transmogrifying what you’ve said. But you can then go ahead and speak the next bit, and then the next bit, and so on until your entire thought has been converted from synpatic traffic to readable text.

2) Its user interface and feature set are a bit spartan. You can edit what’s been transcribed and then you can dump the text to an email, SMS, or the clipboard. But that’s about it.

3) Dragon Dictation For iPhone is not a Keebler cookie: the elfin magic is not baked right in. Instead, what you say is transmitted to Nuance’s server, converted via remote software, and then sent back down to the app. So you’ll need a WiFi or mobile internet connection.

It was a good start. But then I tried it out with something a little more ambitious. When I read it the first page of one of my favorite books I uncovered a fourth, and truly dealbreaking, drawback:

4) It censors what you’ve said.


The harmless page in question was from “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.” Dragon calmly and nimbly transmogrified the bits about the drugs and the huge bats and the “Holy Jesus.” But the final two words of the opening graf had become “g*ddamn animals.”


Of course you know what famous piece of literature I had to try next:

iPhone Dragon seven dirty words

Friends, this screenshot represents my g*ddamned best effort to get the Dragon app to properly parse the spotlight lines from George Carlin’s “Seven Words” routine. The seven naughty words appear twice in this passage. In the final sentence, I simply read them naturally. But when I spoke them in the second sentence, I spoke with the measured tones and eloquent baritone of Frasier Crane, enunciating carefully and confidently, over and over again, one word at a time, coaxing the Dragon to do the right thing and giving the software the best chance possible. What you see there in the second sentence is the very best I could do to get Dragon Dictation to correctly transcribe some extremely naughty dictation.

I was relentless and determined. I was filthy and repetitive. It was if I had wanted to make sure that I’d never be asked to take care of a friend’s expensive pet parrot ever again.

“P***, comma.” I soothed.

“Test,” the Dragon replied.

“Puh-ISSsssss, comma.” I said.

“Test,” agreed the Dragon.

I angled my iPhone so that my “P”s and “S”s woudn’t overwhelm the microphone.

“Test,” said the Dragon, who seemed to be getting a little bit bored with all of this.

My triumph with “C*********” was entirely accidental. I had over-Frasiered the word, pronouncing it as though it was the name of a new model of Mercedes sedan and I was recording a voice-over for an ad that was going to air during the Masters tournament. Apparently, Dragon is perfectly fine with the concept of sucking (the Mets do it all the time, and most of those guys are millionaires). It’s also willing to give me the benefit of the doubt regarding a word that often describes roosters and what you must do with a revolver before you keep the little feathery bastard from ever waking you up before dawn ever again. But when you put those two words together, the Dragon collapses into the nearest fainting couch.

As for the word that refers to a lady’s…ladyparts, I repeated that one so many times that I am now confident that my home has not been bugged by any federal agency. I hope that if any member of law enforcement should ever hear a single man say that word so frequently or attentively in a single 90-second period, they won’t bother coming in through the door. Standard procedure should be to send teams crashing in straight through windows and walls.

And what the hell is the matter with those people at Dragon? They’ll censor the f-word when it appears all by itself. But when this popular verb is maternally compounded…it’s “Mother” that they have a problem with? Really? Oh, dear. Freud has just manifested himself physically. After I get done explaining to him what an iPhone is, and explained why he’s going to have to put out the cigar before he steps onto a public sidewalk, he’s going to want to have a lonnng talk with the good folks at Nuance.

I haven’t spoken to Nuance so I don’t know for a fact why Dragon Dictation is censoring the output of this app. I can take an educated guess that they did it to get the app through Apple’s iTunes Store approval process. Apple presents an image of themselves as John Lithgow in “Third Rock From The Sun,” brilliant and eccentric and fun and free. When it comes to moving apps through the approval process, they’re more like the John Lithgow who banned dancing in his community and tried to get Kevin Bacon run out of town for immoral use of a Foreigner album.

“Hypocrite!” you might shout. “You’ve censored all of these same naughty words from your own blog post!!!”

Indeed I did. I was raised in a humble Puritan fishing colony on the Massachusetts Bay and there are many words that I simply don’t like to use if I can avoid them. I’m also aware that if I use certain words here, I could seriously foxtrot uniform charlie kilo my site’s standing with various “net nanny” services.

Maybe I’m wrong to censor my stuff. But it’s my censorship of my blog post, and my decision to make. I’m perfectly entitled. But an app — even a free one — hasn’t earned that right. Less than an hour after I installed Dragon Dictation, I ship candidate.

Damn, I had the TV on while I dictated that. Let me try again:

I shipped can do it.

Damn. Okay, well, it’s no longer on my iPhone, anyway.

I’ll tell you one thing, though. Motorola is a fool if they don’t use this in an upcoming Droid ad. On the iPhone, you can’t even use the word. But a phone that runs the Android OS approves so strongly of the concept that it’ll even help you find it in the nearby vicinity.

52 thoughts on “The Seven Words You Can’t Say In A Dragon iPhone App

  1. Kimh

    You can’t blame them. If the software recognized these words, it could also produce them erroneously, causing no end of trouble.

    Don’t blame the software vendor for society’s foibles.

  2. Josh

    Kimh has an interesting point there, but might I suppose that their speech recognition was so bad that it was littering every day phrases (“Moms can’t do it all the time”) with obscenities? The easy workaround to that was to simply eliminate all of the obscenities.

  3. Tom

    Half the fun is knowing how extensively they’ve made their list of swear words. I’d be interested to hear how it works with some swearing in a more Shakespearian manner. (WOuld it say z*unds perhaps/ Gadz**ks? )
    A list is here for example – e.g. Hedge-borne huggermuggers, earth vexing mumble news, gor-bellied lax-wench?

    Maybe 2 versions away from an iPhone with the power to run the application by itself? Till then, Voice Control has something to aspire to.

  4. Sruckel

    The user agreement gives Nuance the right to upload your address book contacts. I’m not sure I want them to have that data, and can send it to your carrier.

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  6. Gerry

    I grew up in a small fishing community too. That’s where I learned all those words… there and in the Navy. (grin) Personally, obscenity is in the eyes of the beholder. From my humble perspective, what we are doing in Afghanistan and what we’re doing to our planet are obscenities. I have no problem with words… any words.

  7. Dan N.

    Interestingly I can’t get it to transcribe the word “bravo”. The app seems to think I’m using the NATO phonic alphabet and will only transcribe “bravo” as “b”.

  8. Rich

    “You think you can support my daughter?”
    “I can support anybody who hold onto the handrail!”

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  10. Michael Critz

    After using Voice Control on my iPhone, I won’t use Dragon dictation for two reasons. First, I use my phone in noisy environments like the subway, the gym, walking around Boston, or the odd business flight. Voice Control has more difficulty in these situations and it isn’t making the high level of refined word choices I’d need to make dictation software worthwhile. Secondly, Voice Control has unintended consequences. I can say, “play artist Porno for Pyros” and the lady computer voice says “playing artist Porno for Pee-rez.” Which makes me giggle like a school girl. It shames me. Furthermore, I get embarrassed when I walk down Comm Ave and say, “play artist Spice Girls.”

    Which is why I made a “death metal” playlist.

  11. gary

    The “censorship” is for the event of mis-recognition. If you have some kid using the app and they say something close to one of the seven words and the app mis-recognizes the word, the company is in for some real negative feedback. Makes sense.

  12. Michael

    I’m with MCritz. Hearing “playing artist motterhed” is enough fun to make me actually use Voice Control…

  13. Distorted Loop

    Andy – brilliantly amusing review, but as another comment poster has pointed out, the app uploads all your contacts to their server. Why the h#ll do those m*therfuckers want my contacts? Sounds like foxtrot-uniform-charlie-kilo-en spyware to me. These b^stards can take their sh|tty spyware app and shove it up their arses.

    Seriously, this privacy concern is the kind of thing we hope big tech reviewers like you might learn of and expose before too many of the masses get snooped unwittingly.

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  15. Distorted Loop

    I’m going to step back a bit from my slightly privacy paranoia stance in the previous comment and point out that according to the EULA, Nuance only uploads the names and business names of your contacts, and only for the purpose of improving speech recognition. However, the EULA does state that your contacts’ names may be given to your cell carrier at any time, and will also be released as required by law, court order, etc. Supposedly they’ll never be contacted, but Nuance may provide them to 3rd parties to be used only as directed by Nuance. You may trust Nuance, but at that point, you’re now putting trust in 3rd parties you don’t even know the identity of. It’s still a privacy concern, but not as malicious as first reports of it sounded. I guess I’m foolish to think that in the digital world there’s any thing private any more…

  16. Harper


    The “censorship” is most certainly not for the event of mis-recognition. If this where the case then Nuance would have the same censorship in their PC products. I can tell you from experience that they don’t.

    Dragon Naturally Speaking for the Mac or PC has absolutely no trouble whatsoever transcribing George Carlin’s most famous spiel.

  17. Kim Helliwell

    Really, Andy? You discarded an otherwise perfectly usable app because it wouldn’t transcribe swear words? One wonders just how often you feel the need to use these words in your iPhone correspondence.

    Just sayin’.

  18. John H.

    Re: M’f’er – I can’t understand certain cable channels, either – when they have to censor the word “A-Hole”, they usually put the BLEEP on the “HOLE” part. Really? It’s the HOLE part that’s offensive? Wouldn’t it make more sense to censor the ASS part? I understand that you can say the name of a donkey, and you can say the name of a hole, and that you can’t say the two words together on TV, as part of a compound word. But shouldn’t it be the first syllable that gets bleeped, and not the second?

  19. Jerry Henderson

    The only thing I could get the app to do right was a telephone number. Even then, I had to speak as to a child from Slobovia. I think it is a combination of iPhone mic quality and voice peculiarities.

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  21. igzabier

    the censoring blurs the line between the computer working for you or you working for it, if this is futuristic app then will we all speak in C++ in future to appease our robot overlords?-blaaahhh!!!

    starting with the personal data collection this app does, ‘there’s a vetting process for that’ humans first!

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  24. Fred

    Apparently fart is converted to either “fark” or “f*rt”! If fart is a bad word why did apple let the fart app into the apple store? This app is a step in the right direction but even the iphone’s CPU is too anemic to convert speech to text. There are many (free) apps available that use a pay service to fund the servers that run the conversion software and send it as text back to your phone, or off in an email or mms, but apple needs to put some real hardware in the next iPhone so this really works without the Internet

  25. Pingback: Andy Ihnatko: The Seven Words You Can’t Say in a Dragon iPhone App «

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  27. Simon

    would love to know what the actual image says, as I’m totally blind and can’t get much out of it. But, you bring up some interesting points. Technically although the app is running through a web server, it’s on a personal device, so I don’t understand why it should censor anything you say. I was talking to my girlfriend yesterday about how censorship was being taken way too far, and i guess this proves my point. Not only do they censor songs on radios, but now they have to censor your personal voice recognition. Next it’ll be voice mail messages. hi, you’ve reached me. I can’t get to the (beep)ing phone, so leave a message after the beep. No, not the one you just heard because of my piece of (beep) phone company, but the one you’re about to hear. Right, now. (longer beep)

  28. John Sawyer

    These words were censored so the app would make it through Apple’s App Store vetting. As Harper says above, the desktop versions of Dragon software will convert and display these words properly.

  29. Ron

    Does Tiger Woods have an iPhone? Someone at Nuance must be having a field day with this information! :lol:

  30. Sean Matthews

    If you want fast text entry for an iPhone, then you should install dasher (which gets rid of the whole stupid idea of a virtual keyboard too small to use): you whould have no problem writing a book with that (and it is free).

  31. Matt

    I had exactly this kind of problem with the stylus-to-text function of Window XP Tablet Edition a few years ago: it absolutely would not render the word, “fuck”. I thought it was just my handwriting, but no. If I wrote, “FUCK”, slowly and carefully, it would come back as (if I recall correctly), “TUCK”, every single time. If I wrote, “TUCK”, or, “FUNK”, then both rendered just fine, so clearly it wasn’t an issue with recognition. Microsoft was censoring user input.

    This simply should not happen, not on WinXP Tablet Edition and not on Dragon’s iPhone App. I understand why they’re doing it (to get a particular rating on the app store and, hence, distribute the app more widely), so I don’t blame them. The problem lies with Apple’s ridiculous concession to the prudish elements of our society and with those prudes who can’t accept that other people use language in ways that they don’t like.

    In other words, our culture is rather linguistically fucked. :(

  32. Salaryman Ryan

    “I could seriously foxtrot uniform charlie kilo my site’s standing with various “net nanny” services.”

    Considering that everybody in the comment section has been typing cuss words consider your “net nanny” standing as fubar. :-)

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  35. Rick Brinkman

    I ironically couldn’t get it to recognize the word “dictation”. Out of 5 tries, 3 x it thought “patient”, once “gestation”, and once it got it’s own name correct. :-)

    but still very useful.

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  39. Steve Tedder

    Surely that’s speech-to-text and not text-to-speech!

    And remember, obscenity is in the ear of the behearer.

  40. M. LaMorte

    This kinda reminds me of the original handwriting recognition of the Newton. It was prehy pis p0or ahd wou d do an aw fl job of accunateIy recogniing wnat y ou wnote.

    The Simpsons even parodies it:

    Now, the HWR improved with the MP2100, which I still own, use, and love, but by then Steve-O had returned to the helm and Sculley’s pet project was doomed.

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  42. Lisa

    My biggest gripe is that I can’t actually find this app. It doesn’t seem to be available for UK users. The message I receive from my phone when I click on the link is: Your request could not be completed.

    No word on why…

  43. Deb

    As of 12/16, this app allows you to opt out of having the address book uploaded, just FYI. They did the right thing.

  44. jeff

    what ashamed that instead of celebrating another triumph in the word of technology, this blogger stupidly wastes time discussing the app’s failure to convert cuss words!
    how stupid is this? save the gutter stuff for the gutter. most reasonalby intelligent people have been able to communicate just fine without ever having to use the 7 dirty words.
    what an idiot!

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