Shifting Meaning of “Censor”

By Maeve Maddox

The English word censor is used both as a noun and as a verb.

In ancient Rome, a censor was one of two magistrates in charge of the census, “the enrollment of the names and property assessments of all Roman citizens.” Both census and censor derive from Latin censere, “to appraise, value, judge.” In addition to maintaining census records, the Roman censors were in charge of supervising public morality.

During wartime, military censors are appointed to read the letters of service personnel to insure that no information about troop movements can be intercepted by the enemy.

Some modern countries have official censors whose duty is to inspect all books and movies before publication or release to ensure that they don’t contain anything offensive to the government or the established religion. India, for example, has the Central Board of Film Certification that reviews, rates, and censors motion pictures, television shows, television ads, and promotional material. Before the current classification system of G, PG, PG-23, R, and NC-17 was established in 1968, the United States motion picture industry was subject to the Motion Picture Production Code for controlling movie content and advertising.

Unofficially, many groups and individuals exert themselves as self-appointed censors of the public morality, working to ban books from libraries, or objectionable CDs and magazines from store shelves.

The usual meaning of censor as a verb is “to suppress or remove those parts of a written work or film that are considered unacceptable for some reason.”

For example, in the 19th century, a bowdlerized edition of Shakespeare’s plays was published without such naughty parts as the porter’s scene in Macbeth. In the 21st century, an overzealous college professor has produced a censored edition of Huckleberry Finn.

One normally censors a thing, but I’m beginning to notice the word being used of people, as if it meant “limiting the behavior of”:

Croteau and Hoynes…describe managers censoring their employees…

In truth, it is totally up to the parent to censor their children to what they read and watch.

“Don’t Censor Me” (song title)

I found one writer using the word censor as if it could connote magical powers of elimination:

How can I censor The Epic of Gilgamesh from existing? […] How can I take this book out from my local libraries so that no one can read it…

The development of filtering software, often referred to as “censorware,” probably has something to do the shift from a thing as the object of “censor” to a person as the object.

“Censorware” prevents computer users from seeing certain types of content in a browser. The software is censoring content, but from the users’ perspective, the user’s freedom of choice is being interfered with. Not surprisingly, the word censor is coming to mean something like “control.”

Bottom line: Parents may censor the type of music their children listen to, but they don’t censor their children. Corporations may censor the speech of their employees, but they don’t censor the employees.

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4 Responses to “Shifting Meaning of “Censor””

  • Judi Hopper

    Very interesting post, Maeve – thanks!
    (and what a lovely ring your name has)

  • Maeve

    Judi,
    Thanks.

    I’m a fan of alliteration.

  • jessiethought

    I have not noticed censor being used like that…

    Interesting history of the Roman censor. I knew vaguely that they took census, but nothing else, really.

  • Stephen Thorn

    To paraphrase a slogan from my idealistic youth (during the Vietnam era in the US): “I live for the day when my child can ask, ‘Daddy, what was censorship?'”

    I abhor censorship. Granted, there are things that I can’t help but find so vile or repellent that I wish they’d vanish in a puff of disgust, but I would never seek to force that disappearance through censorship. As a pin I used to have declared, “Censorship is the worst form of obscenity.”

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