A friend of mine, an employee at a high-tech company in Research Triangle Park, recently sent an e-mail to his friends warning about his company’s new e-mail software. The computers at his workplace, he wrote, are now so smart that they can catch and block incoming or outgoing e-mails containing offensive or lewd words. Instead of the whole message, the sender receives a list of the swear words it contains, along with an explanation (i.e. “dirty word” or “sexual discrimination”) of why they are offensive.

“From now on,” my friend wrote, “if you must swear, please call me on the phone or write a letter by hand like we used to before this electronic bull*$%# started.”

Like my friend–and apparently half the people in his address book–I curse like a sailor sometimes, but my e-mail messages (certainly those sent during work hours) are hardly colorful, much less dirty. So the idea that Big Brother was casting his nets and pulling in my mildly brackish messages was bizarre–and intriguing. I viewed it as a challenge.

I immediately e-mailed off a dirty word to my friend. Then another. And another. After the fourth in a barrage of one-word messages, my friend finally replied: “Stop that,” he wrote.

But I continued, and over the course of an afternoon, we learned a thing or two about his company’s cyber censor. While it successfully guards against all of the usual four-letter suspects, it has some strange quirks. Through trial and error we figured out that you can be a prostitute, a lady of the night, a female canine, a hooker, a “ho” or even a tart–just not a whore. That word is labeled “sexually discriminatory.” On the other hand, dyke is A-OK to write, even in a name-calling fashion. Surprisingly, you can even be a “damn dyke” on this system. What you can’t be, it appears, is a guy named Richard–at least, not if you use a rather outdated nickname. And forget about sending any lewd attachments. They get screened out as well.

Thankfully, there are no company-wide repercussions for cursing in cyberspace–otherwise my friend would be in deep, uh, doo-doo. And clearly someone is still trying to work out the bugs. Just when I thought I was getting a handle on things, one word baffled me completely: Viagra. It’s a brand name, and a legal drug; it should be safe. But on this system, Viagra’s considered a “dirty word.”

I guess even the server can smell a punch line a mile off.