Dr. Libshitz Can't Get an E-Mail Address

The Internet is full of filth. From "barely legal babes" to barely avoidable male-enhancement spam, something risqué seems to be lurking around every corner online.

Yet in an age where amateur action may be more accessible than early American literature, some families are finding that Internet service providers have drawn the line on obscenity at a rather surprising place: Their own names, they're being told by Web professionals, are too vulgar for the Web.

What's in a Name?

The location balloon points to the innocuous town of Scunthorpe, North Lincolnshire, England.
Before you think I've gone off the deep end, allow me to introduce you to an unassuming little town in North Lincolnshire, England. About a hour's drive northeast of Sheffield, it's a place known as the steel-producing capital of the United Kingdom--but that distinction pales in comparison to where its real claim to fame lies: in its name. Welcome to Scunthorpe.

The name Scunthorpe--whose unassuming syllables are pronounced as "scun" and "thorpe"--is believed to be derived from an Old Norse word, "escumetorp," meaning "farmstead belonging to Skuma." But the name's etymology isn't what made it notorious.

Scunthorpe first entered the American vernacular around 1996, back in the Internet's infancy. That's when, legend has it, AOL's automated filtering system kept Scunthorpians from registering for accounts because of a certain sequence of four letters found within their town's name. As recently as 2004, services like Google's SafeSearch reportedly were still flagging Web sites that contained the term.

All of those episodes of misplaced nannydom led to the christening of a new term, the "Scunthorpe Problem," referring to the blocking of an otherwise unobjectionable name because an unintended naughty word resides within its borders. It's something that residents of the South Yorkshire town of Penistone, which is about an hour west of Scunthorpe, know well, as do families living in England's less blatantly blasphemous village of Lightwater (look carefully), which is about 3 hours south of Scunthorpe.

So what's in a name? A lot, it would seem, especially in the automated matrix of the Information Age. But the Scunthorpe Problem isn't limited to geographic locations. Get ready to meet a retired radiologist who unexpectedly found his life shifting from X-rays to accusations of being X-rated.

Next: Dr. Libshitz's Battles

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