Oxford claims Apple added the “no democracy in Iraq” line to their thesaurus [UPDATED] - Macenstein

Oxford claims Apple added the “no democracy in Iraq” line to their thesaurus [UPDATED]

Posted by Dr. Macenstein

[Please be sure to check out this link for the most recent developments in this story]

A few weeks back we brought you a report detailing an unusual finding in the built-in Dictionary/Thesaurus that ships with OS X. A poster over at rave.com noticed that if you type the word “Democracy” into Mac OS X’s Dictionary widget, and then switch over to the thesaurus, you are given the following example usage of the word:

Democracy (noun)
“a democracy in Iraq is quite unlikely for now or any time soon”

While topical, we felt this was a slightly controversial choice of phrase to use in describing the word “Democracy” given the current political situation in Iraq. As many of our readers pointed out, whether it is a successful one or not, technically there IS a democracy in Iraq, and has been for a couple years now. Saddam Hussein was removed from power in April of 2003, and the widget was released nearly 2 years later in April of 2005 (and 2 weeks after Iraq’s democratically-elected administration took power). Some suggested a more appropriate geographical choice might have been one with an actual in-power dictator, such as North Korea or Cuba.

Many readers were convinced that since Apple gets the widget’s definitions from the New Oxford American Dictionary, odds are they have nothing to do with the definitions that show up in search results, and Oxford must be the source of the phrase. However, it seems that may not be the case.

While we normally try to steer clear of politics on Macenstein, we were intrigued by the idea that perhaps this line of text was somehow added by Apple (or a rogue programmer) who felt the need to express their personal beliefs, however obscurely, through code (we’re suckers for a good conspiracy!). So in one of our very rare pieces of investigational reporting, we wrote to Oxford University Press to get their take on this.

Three weeks later, we have our response.

March 29th, 2007

Dear Dr. Macenstein,
I have forwarded your question to our dictionaries editor and I am
waiting for a reply. Thank you.

Oxford University Press
April 13th, 2007

Dear Dr. Macenstein,

I checked the hardcopy of the New Oxford American Dictionary & Thesaurus and did not find in it any sample sentence attached to the definition of democracy. I suspect it was added by the Apple programmers.


Oxford Customer Service

So it is Oxford’s opinion that someone at Apple felt strongly enough about the situation in Iraq to change the definition of “democracy” they were given by Oxford University Press. Obviously, this is somewhat akin to writing a hate letter to your boss and burying it in the backyard, as while it may make you feel better to get it off your chest, the odds of people seeing it are pretty slim.

Still, it makes you wonder how many other little personal opinions are tucked away in Apple’s dictionary, and just whose opinions they are.

[UPDATE:] Readers have alerted us that a similarly odd result can be found if one looks up the word “president”. The returned thesaurus usage reads “terrorists assassinated the president”.

[UPDATE 2:] [Please be sure to check out this link for the most recent developments in this story]

50 Responses to “Oxford claims Apple added the “no democracy in Iraq” line to their thesaurus [UPDATED]”
  1. deek says:

    hmmm.. it makes ME wonder if that’s a violation of some sort between any agreement Apple might have with Oxford. I don’t see why they’d want to let them screw with their definitions.

  2. teece says:

    Interesting, but entirely inconclusive. Apple did not write this dictionary or thesaurus. A programmer could easily insert their own text into it, yes (it’s an XML file on your Mac — a big and ugly one, but easy to figure out if you have half a technical brain. I’ve monkeyed with it for my own reasons. You could easily insert your own text, you just couldn’t get them easily distributed).

    BUT — there is no guarantee that the hard copy of the Oxford books is derived from the same electronic dictionary source. The customer service rep. really has no inside knowledge here — at the very least, you’d need to check an electronic source derived from the same raw definitions, or get confirmation that the electronic version sent to Apple was the same one that made Oxford hard copies.

    You’re not likely to get either.

    Some Apple programmer may have added this, but your entry-level response from the customer service rep. didn’t prove that for you.

    And this is *still* not a controversy except in the minds of the deluded.

  3. teece says:

    Oh, if you’re really interested, the quote in question is at:

    “/Library/Dictionaries/Oxford American Writers Thesaurus.dict/Contents/dict_body”

    line 3358, open it with a text editor. (warning, 15.5MB text file).

    (You’ll need to use “Show Pacakge Contents” on “Oxford American Writers Thesaurus.dict” or use the Terminal to get to that file).

  4. Parry Hotter says:

    I think it’s controversial, or at least odd.

  5. freddy five fingers says:

    I don’t see macenstein in the article saying this is conclusive, they just say Oxford’s response is that it doesn’t come from them.

    thanks for the tip on messing with the dictionary though, teece. I think I need to check it out.

  6. ant says:

    that’s f’d up.

  7. Fritz says:

    I’m sure it isn’t Apple, it is likely a bored programmer. They have put in a ton of obscure “easter egg” type things over the years in all sorts of programs, including Final Cut Pro, I noticed. Just them having fun. Although they usually steer clear of politics. It’s usually just joke stuff or hidden games.

  8. Charlie Spotted says:

    I once put an anti-american comment in the Javascript source of a website I did for a company. Little did I know that the company’s parent company was American, and during a presentation they did for the new site, yep, the javascript broke and this section was debugged on the screen…

    I was very, very lucky not to lose my job.

    I suspect if they tracked them down, this programmer would have a talking to, too…

  9. SJ B says:

    hey Charlie Spotted, I’m American. I suspect you may be from a country that “We Saved” in WWII. So maybe you should write your little childish anti-american propaganda in the language half the world would be speaking if it wasn’t for my oh-so-terrible country, German. =) Cheers!

  10. Uncle Sam says:

    What could you have possibly said bad about America?
    We’re PERFECT!

  11. Ah HA! says:

    I think we just found the reason for the delay in Leopard!
    It is going to take Apple 4 months to manually go through the dictionary widget and look for vandalism!

  12. Luke Gillam says:

    I highly doubt that Apple would allow a staff member to put it in. I suspect that at least two people check through the dictionaries, someone could of done it just before they started adding all the software to the packages and macs.

  13. linda says:

    I think the main reason I feel this wasn’t Oxford is traditionally you wouldn’t use a current event in the definition of a word. Using current events means that next year’s dictionary will require editors to poor through every definition from last year and see if it is still relevant. They could have used an ancient civilization as a democratic example, and the sample usage would have been timeless.

  14. James says:

    It is worth mentioning that the sample sentence in the Dictionary is “capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.”, so overall there is sadly no bias towards reality! 😉

  15. _mind says:

    I wouldn’t call this controversial. That’s the foxnews mentality of say-there-is-another-side-to-every-issue-no-matter-its-support-or-credibility rearing it’s ugly head. I would agree that could have chosen a better location (people in Iraq are voting. they just happen to be voting with guns, which is arguably more free). Perhaps they could have chosen the good ole USA?

    Of course Apple didn’t stick this in. Apple is a large business and therefore it must tiptoe very carefully around anything might offend people. Unfortunately, the people in power are in the war business, and don’t really care how many people they kill, whether it was the 11SEP01 false-flag or the current Iraq quagmire.

  16. Anonymous says:

    SJ B

    As a US citizen, you make me sick.

  17. Anon says:

    Also in Apple’s thesaurus, Terrorist says “the detainees were suspected terrorists” and Insurgent says they’re “gaining popularity”.

  18. US Cavalry says:


    Me too. Though I’m sick of crass anti-Americanism, that is about the dumbest retort possible.

  19. A. Nonee Moose says:

    SJ B..you are a complete and total asshat.
    Take your Pabst, Union Jack, Pit Bull and your El Camino back to Arkansas, you fuckwit.

  20. Mike says:

    SJ B.

    As a US citizen myself, I am ashamed of your attitude and ignorance of world history.

  21. FatHed says:

    There is no Iraq. By that I mean that sure there’s a puppet government in Iraq, but it doesn’t control the country, so it’s not in charge. Our military does not control the country either, so we aren’t in charge.

    A country with no one, or agency in charge isn’t really a country.

  22. Bobby says:

    …and suprisingly a few weeks back Macenstein brought us a report detailing an unusual finding in the built-in Dictionary/Thesaurs Widget that ships with OS X and STILL have not realized that there is an Application in plain sight in the (duh) applications folder called Dictionary which reflects the same things. Not only does it use the same xml database, it suggests Macentstein might not know what they’re talking about. So, widget isn’t really a big deal, and it’s not an easter egg or something of the widget as you seem to think it is.

  23. Scotty1024 says:

    This is a hoax.

    Anyone who has actually used the Macintosh OS X Dictionary widget knows that the word looked up is displayed broken up into syllables with bullets. In this case the person perpetrating the hoax didn’t put in the bullets. The entry should read “de moc cr cy” after noun it should supply the plural form of democracy: “(pl. -cies)”

    I hope whomever perpetrated this got a good laugh at the expensive of everyone that didn’t even bother to fact check this.

    BY the way, the president “entry” is a similar hoax.

  24. Way Cool Jr. says:

    Scotty, it is not a hoax.
    it is on my system too.
    Type in Democracy, then click the word Thesaurus.

  25. chicken says:

    i think it’s hillarious!

  26. trevor mcmanu says:

    The only thing wrong with that definition is it should say “a SUCCESSFUL democracy in Iraq is quite unlikely for now or any time soon”.

  27. Captain Obvious says:

    well, on the odd chance this isn’t someone at Apple messing with the dictionary, I think Apple should choose another company to supply their dictionary. There seems to be a lot of impartial definitions going around. And if it IS someone at Apple, then WTF Apple?!?!

  28. Heh! says:

    Heh heh heh.

  29. wow says:

    Wow. That “president” entry is more bizarre than the democracy one! If you think about it, how is that a sentence that helps describe the word president? I could see it describing “assassination” or even “terrorist”, but it is a very bizarre term to use to describe “president”. If you legitimately didn’t know what the term “president” meant, would that sentence help you? How about “as commander in chief, the president decided to send troops in to Iraq”, or, “the president of Nabisco decided to sell the company”, or “the president met with the heads of 30 other countries to discuss diplomacy” ? (that last one would be nice to read ANYWHERE, even if it is just a thesaurus!)

    Anyway, some odd choices in there.

  30. Joey Diggs says:

    I think it is highly unlikely Apple made a mistake. Everything they do is double checked and triple checked – I’ve never seen them make an error, and I’ve used their software and hardware for twenty years.

    When it comes to Apple, someone else made the mistake.

  31. Way Cool Jr. says:

    Joey Diggs, you really think Apple has someone go over EVERY entry in the dictionary?

  32. Brent says:

    also, check out ‘acquiesce’:

    Bush wants to ensure that Beijing will acquiesce in a possible American war against Iraq

    just search the file for Bush, China, Iraq, etc.

  33. eeyorn says:

    This appears to be a major lack of quality control. If a programmer inserted the text, I would have expected there to be an extensive review of the output, before it got signed off, locked and packaged for distribution. Thus if it were a programmer adding the entries, they should have been spotted further down the line. Its quite likely that there was either collusion between the programmer and editor, or it was the editor what did it.

  34. Dwight D. says:

    >>Some suggested a more appropriate geographical choice might have been one
    >>with an actual in-power dictator, such as North Korea or Cuba.

    US elections are not clear neither clean. If you look for a shady government, you don’t need to look that far.

  35. Daiichi says:

    What version of OS X do these dictionary terms come up on? I’m on a pretty much pristine (except for the Apple updates) Mac OS X 10.4.9. No outside software (other than Office) had been installed on this machine. My definitions are completely different–the subject words don’t produce definitions about Iraq, assassination, or Bush at all.

    I hypothesize that these definitions are coming about due to the installation of third party software. But I could be wrong… 10.4.9 is a pretty old version, huh?

  36. Way Cool Jr. says:

    Daiichi, be sure to check that you are NOT looking at the DICTIONARY definitions, you are looking at the THESAURUS definitions.
    just look the words up in Dictionary, then hit the THESAURUS button to switch to that mode. It should be there. I doubt it has anything to do with 3rd party apps.

  37. Nick says:

    Why are people saying the definitions are wrong? The definitions came from the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the example sentences that are off. The reason Apple didn’t check is probably because they didn’t assume anyone would change the sentences.

    As far as what version, I’m using 10.4.9 with all the updates and I just checked it using the Dictionary app (I disabled Dashboard).

  38. Bob says:

    There is nothing remotely controversial about either of these.

    Lincon, Kennedy, Reagan (survived)… Presidents are often targets for assasination and the connection is well forged in most peoples minds.

    Iraq is blatently NOT a democracy, and as the entry correctly states it is unlikely it will be in the near future.

    I think the motivations of the author are suspect and tinged with a creepy authoratarian mock outrage.

  39. buddhistMonkey says:

    If I had to bet, I’d say the sentence came from a file written before the war.

  40. Pauldy says:

    All of these where on my wifes machine and her machine is pretty much clean except for neo office and firefox 10.4.9. I would also like to thank SJ B for standing to the asshats who run around like terrorism is some made up thing and it is all some conspiracy, then look at something as blatant as this as if it was funny and no big deal.

  41. buckykat says:

    they mean a real representative democracy, not a US puppet state.

  42. Jim H says:

    Hey, you know what I think? In each thesaurus entry, there’s a “current usage” example. Do a nexis search of the media, I’d bet these are all examples that would pop up from a search. “The detainees are suspected terrorists” is current usage. Of course, to any American before 2002, this would be a phrase that would only be uttered in a movie about the Nazis. Can’t help that. Might one or the other of the sentences have been chosen? Was there, perhaps, an anti-Amurrican thought criminal somewhere in Apple? I don’t know. Sic the NSA wiretaps on them.

    It illustrates current usage. Those who want to censor it because of its “subtext” will kindly admit they’re Stalinists.

  43. tugger says:

    SJ B, History lesson for you.

    When we entered the war in 1941, German had been stopped at the English channel and the air war (batttle of Britain) had been pretty much won by the Brits, who were just stating the bombing campaign in Germany. Germany was also losing the conflict (and about to get out of) North Africa.
    When we entered the war Germanys only agressive military action was in central Russia, and we all know what happened there.

    If we hadn’t entered the war, there is a good chance that most countries east of france would have been behind the iron curtain, which is exactly why we entered the war. We didn’t save anyone, we just accellerated the conclusion to stop the Russkys getting all the loot.

  44. moocha says:

    Look up the words ‘acquiesce’ and ‘estrange’ (in the thesaurus).

  45. US Citizen says:

    buckykat: hey, the US _is_ a puppet state. i resent your insinuation that it isn’t real.

  46. Spooner says:

    A few more…

    White House
    1 the official residence of the U.S. president in Washington, D.C. • the U.S. president, presidency, or government : the White House denounced the charge.

    dictate verb
    1 the president’s attempts to dictate policy prescribe, lay down, impose, set down, order, command, decree, ordain, direct, determine, decide, control, govern.

    preside |priˈzīd| verb [ intrans. ]
    1 be in the position of authority in a meeting or gathering : Bishop Herbener presided at the meeting | [as adj. ] ( presiding) the sentence imposed by the presiding judge. • ( preside over) be in charge of (a place or situation) : he presided over a period of great budgetary recklessness.

    Iraq |iˈräk; iˈrak; īˈrak|
    a country in the Middle East, with an outlet on the Persian Gulf; pop. 25,374,000; capital, Baghdad; official language, Arabic. Iraq is traversed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, whose valley was the site of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia. …

    … The U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and captured Saddam Hussein. Sovereignty was transferred to an interim government June 28, 2004, but U.S. forces remained in Iraq amid rising chaos.

    detain |diˈtān| verb [ trans. ]
    keep (someone) in official custody, typically for questioning about a crime or in politically sensitive situations : she was detained without trial for two years.

    terrorist noun
    the detainees are suspected terrorists extremist, fanatic; revolutionary, radical, insurgent, guerrilla, anarchist, freedom fighter; bomber, gunman, assassin, hijacker, arsonist, incendiary.

    United States of America noun
    Sasha’s tour of duty in Afghanistan made her appreciate everyday life in the United States of America

    govern |ˈgəvərn| verb [ trans. ]
    1 conduct the policy, actions, and affairs of (a state, organization, or people) : he was incapable of governing the country | [as adj. ] ( governing) the governing coalition.

  47. Cow Say says:

    Sorry, but Oxford Customer Service is just wrong. The definitions do not come from the print edition. The OED Online edition is updated constantly, at is the likely source for the example sentence.

  48. zpok says:

    The US is a very strange country. It proclaims itself the land of the free, the only real democracy, etc etc etc.

    Still, its history is no less brutal than any other country, statistics on education, crime, homicide, poverty etc are actually shockingly bad when compared to other western nations, as a democracy it’s really not the best example of representative governance and the recent history of foreign policy of the US (’45 – ’07) was no less brutal than that of non-democratic countries like China and the USSR.

    I am not “against” the US and I know the difference between a country and its people, but as a world citizen I’ve stopped taking the US seriously on all moral matters some 12 years ago, and AFAIC as long as you keep spending more money on military than on education and well-being, the US deserves all it does to itself. What a pity your influence is still as big as it is…

    BTW if this really pisses you off, go outside and shout LIBERAL a couple of times (or take your gun and go shoot something). I am stupid and wrong: There, feel better? Good.

  49. septictank says:

    woohoo! go zpok, go zpok. 😀

  50. We’re closing the comments on this one, as this has quickly turned into an off-topic poilitcal debate. Sorry guys.
    -The Doc


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