The Vocabulary of Censorship

blue-pen censorship

censorship (uncountable noun): the banning, suppression or prohibition of speech, writing or images that are deemed obscene, politically or religiously "unacceptable", or a threat to security. It can be applied to (parts of) articles, books, films, art, letters, news, internet or virtually any form of communication. Censorship may be carried out by government, by private organizations or even by individuals. – Totalitarian states are characterised by strict censorship laws. | Social media sites sometimes subject their own users to censorship.

censor (countable noun): a person whose job is to examine a book, film, internet page etc and remove or delete "unacceptable" parts – During the War, most of the letters she received from her husband in the Army had sensitive information deleted by the censor’s blue pen.

censor (transitive verb): examine a book, film, internet page etc and remove or delete "unacceptable" parts – Some social media companies have taken it upon themselves to censor their users’ content.

Freedom of speech is the flip side of censorship. It is the right for every man and woman to express their opinion freely, without fear of retribution, censorship or legal redress. This is a concept that is fundamental to English-speaking countries and much of the world. Indeed, in the USA this freedom is in theory guaranteed by the US Constitution. Many other countries have similar protections. In practice, however, this freedom does not provide carte blanche to say or write anything you wish. Most countries have laws that forbid the incitement of violence, for example. Racist or hate speech is also usually disallowed. Nevertheless, because of this concept, freedom of speech has, by and large, a "good name" and censorship has a "dirty name". Terms such as free speech, freedom of opinion and free expression are often also used to mean freedom of speech.

Censorship is not new. Over the centuries the vilest authoritarian and totalitarian states have censored people’s thoughts and expression whenever the state felt threatened by the people. Even the spoken word has been censored, with parents for example in Nazi Germany afraid to speak in front of their own children (who had been brainwashed at school by the state).

Many books have famously been censored or banned (and sometimes burned), both in the West and the East. The same is true of certain films.

Members of the Nazi Hitler Youth on a book burning campaign in 1938
Members of the Nazi Hitler Youth movement seen burning books in Germany in 1938

What is new in the twenty-first century is the application of censorship to the internet, ranging from the wholesale banning of (for example) in China (by the Chinese government) to (for example) the selective banning of users on Facebook (by Facebook).

Account suspended
Science can flourish only in an atmosphere of free speech. Albert Einstein

Below are listed words related to censorship, with definitions/explanations and sample sentences showing the words used in context. (Some words may have additional meanings unrelated to censorship.)

anonymous (adjective): unidentified by name; of unknown name – The college received an anonymous donation.

authoritarian (adjective): expecting strict obedience to (state) authority at the cost of personal freedom; with little or no concern for the wishes or desires of other people – Under the new party the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.

ban (verb): officially prevent someone from doing something – Many users have been banned from Facebook for posts that Facebook doesn’t like. | Russian dissident Alexey Navalny claimed that the banning of Donald Trump on Twitter was an "unacceptable act of censorship".

biased (adjective): unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something – This channel's news reporting is biased because it is part-owned by the opposition party.

Big Tech (noun): a nickname for the largest and most dominant companies in the information technology industry of the USA, mainly Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – Some people claim that Big Tech has become Big Brother.

blacklist (noun, also verb): a list of people or groups that are banned from something – You may be backlisted from Facebook if you post unorthodox material.

blue-pencil (verb): to censor or make cuts in text – In both world wars, letters sent home from the front were systematically blue-pencilled by military censors to avoid giving away locations and other secrets.

blur out (verb): to make an area of a photo fuzzy and unclear – Luckily they blurred out our faces before publication so no-one knew it was us.

book burning (noun): the deliberate destruction by fire of books (and other paper-based publications) – Under Hitler, the Nazis famously held book burning campaigns in the 1930s, destroying large quantities of publications that they considered subversive or opposed to Nazism.

brainwash (verb): to indoctrinate; to make someone change their beliefs by using systematic and often forcible pressure – The government tried to brainwash people into thinking that war was essential.

cancel culture (noun): a way of behaving where you completely reject and stop supporting someone because they have said or done something that offends you; a modern form of ostracism, especially on social media; exclusion of someone from a society or group – In a cancel culture we appoint ourselves the arbiters of right and wrong and also the judge and jury. | Many people are finding themselves cancelled because of something they have posted on the internet many years ago.

chilling effect (noun): a discouraging effect; the concept that people may limit what they say publicly because they fear specific government laws or social repercussions – There are fears the new state-backed legislation will have a chilling effect on journalism in general.

classified (adjective): officially categorized as secret or top secret and open only to authorized people – I noticed a file he had carelessly left on his desk that was marked "Classified: TOP SECRET".

controversial (adjective): likely to cause public argument – Religion and politics are usually considered controversial topics for discussion.

deny (verb): refuse to give to someone – Visitors were denied access to the site because it had been hacked.

deplatform (verb): prevent a person from contributing to a discussion or forum, especially on social media – For telling the truth as she saw it she was deplatformed from Facebook, Twitter, the App Store and Play Store.

dictatorship (noun): government with a single ruler who has absolute power (dictator), usually obtained by force – There are still a few dictatorships left in the world.

dictator (noun): a ruler who has absolute power over a country – If you asked people to name the most famous dictator in history, most would probably say Adolf Hitler.

disinformation (noun): misinformation that is deliberately misleading and intended to deceive. See misinformationNuclear weapons are often shrouded in a cloud of secrecy and disinformation.

Mr Biden assures US public that COVID-19 mRNA vaccines work
disinformation or misinformation?

domain name (noun): in simple terms, a domain name is a website name, such as or Domain names are recorded in a central registry. – How many domain names have you registered?

extremist content (noun): (usually political or religious) ideas considered far from the mainstream way of thinking – Because of the extremist content on his website, it was feared he might become violent.

filter (verb): to process and remove unwanted content – ISPs began filtering websites for offensive material.

fact-check (verb): to check that all the facts in a newspaper article, TV programme etc are accurate – Did anybody bother to fact-check CNN’s covid program last night? It was peppered with inaccuracies.

fact-checker (verb): a person employed to factcheck – I wonder how you get a job as a fact-checker?

fake news (uncountable noun): false or misleading information presented as news, usually aiming to damage somebody's reputation or make money. It is found in newspapers, magazines, TV, the spoken word, and increasingly the internet especially on social media such as Facebook (itself sometimes scathingly referred to as Fakebook). The British government avoids the term on the grounds that is is "poorly-defined" and "conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference". – She claims that fake news, long a feature of social media, is growing in mainstream media.

First Amendment (noun): an amendment (modification) to the US Constitution that guarantees several freedoms especially with respect to expression and religion – The poet argued in court that her work was protected by the First Amendment.

free speech (noun): the right to express any opinions without censorship or punishment – In fact free speech is never 100% free since all countries have specific laws that limit such things as incitement to violence or slander.

freedom of the press (noun): the right of the press/media to publish legal information and opinions without government interference – In many countries, freedom of the press was achieved only after periods of rebellion.

freedom of expression (noun): the right to express any opinions without censorship or punishment – According to the Global Expression Report by Article19, freedom of expression around the world has been declining and in 2020 was at its lowest score for a decade.

hate speech (noun): threatening and abusive speech or writing that expresses extreme prejudice on the basis of race, gender, religion and so on – Many countries have laws that ban hate speech in any form.

heresy (noun): opinion contrary to orthodox (normally Christian) religion, and by extension any prevailing view – The bishop was burned at the stake for heresy. | In 1633 the astronomer Galileo was charged with heresy for claiming that the sun did not revolve around the earth. His writings were banned and he was imprisoned for life.

heretic (noun): a person practising religious heresy; a person who has opinions that are not generally accepted – He became the ultimate heretic by not accepting their political viewpoint.

the Inquisition (proper noun, capital I): a powerful 13th-century court set up by the Catholic Church in Europe to root out and punish heresy - notorious for the use of torture to extract confessions. – The Mexican president condemned Facebook and Twitter as "a court of censorship like the Inquisition to manage public opinion."

inquisition (noun): prolonged and intensive questioning – He had to face a two-hour inquisition from his wife about the woman in the restaurant.

IP address (noun): an “Internet Protocol” address is a special set of numbers that identifies a device (computer, phone, server etc) on the internet – The authorities can often trace the location of a computer through its IP address.

ISP (internet service provider) (noun): a communications company that supplies internet access to individuals or businesses – The local ISPs charge $30 a month for unlimited internet access.

leak, news leak (noun): an intentional disclosure of something secret or private – An employee with a grudge was responsible for the leak to several newspapers.

liable (adjective): responsible in law; legally responsible – People may be liable if they cause injury to another person.

manipulation (noun): controlling or influencing (a person or situation), usually get what one wants – There was obvious manipulation of the crowds by the media.

misinformation (noun): false, untrue, inaccurate and misleading information. See disinformationThe newspaper editor acknowledged her mistake and apologised for spreading misinformation.

news blackout (noun): a period of time during which news about a particular event is not allowed to be reported – During the crisis the government imposed a news blackout on all media.

orthodox (adjective): conforming to the generally-accepted views of the time – He promoted the benefits of both orthodox medicine and alternative medicine.

perspective (noun): point of view; a particular way of looking at some issue – It is important to listen to the perspectives of others before making decisions.

police (verb): maintain law and order; enforce regulations, enforce an agreement; monitor and enforce the provisions of a law, agreement etc – Many governments have woken up to the need to police social media.

political correctness (noun): the practice of avoiding language that might be offensive to certain groups of people, especially in relation to gender and race – For reasons of political correctness they were forced to withdraw their advertisement from television.

political movement (noun): a group of people working together to promote their shared political ideas – The Middle East saw the growth of numerous political movements during the so-called Arab Spring of 2010-2012.

political uprising (noun): an act of rebellion against a government or other political authority or organization – Many governments censor the internet to disrupt coordination of political uprisings.

pornography (noun): explicit display or description of sexual activity or sexual organs, intended to arouse sexual desire – Some countries have strict laws banning pornography.

politicized (adjective): made political in character – The issue has been increasingly politicized and has divided the country.

propaganda (noun): information, especially biased or misleading information, used to promote a political cause or other point of view – The government promoted constant propaganda in the news to maintain power.

precedent (noun): an earlier event that is seen as an example or guide in managing a similar subsequent event – The precedents of the 1994 case helped the judge arrive at a verdict.

riot, riots (noun): a public and violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd – Following the announcement, riots broke out in the streets.

riot (verb): to take part in a violent disturbance of the peace – When people are unhappy about some government actions, they may riot in protest.

Section 230 (proper noun): a controversial part of the American Communications Decency Act (1996) that essentially provides immunity for websites from content posted by users – Without Section 230, social media sites like Facebook could not have grown into the giants they are today.

shadow ban (verb): to block a user on a website or chatroom without their knowledge, so that they continue to see their own posts and comments but nobody else does – He was angry when he realised he’d been shadow banned for the last four weeks and had been wasting his time making hundreds of posts that no-one could see.

social unrest (noun): a state of dissatisfaction and disturbance among ordinary people, often involving public demonstrations or disorder – Some governments try to control the internet in their country as they fear social unrest.

subjectivity (noun): the quality of being based on or influenced by personal opinions or feelings – The subjectivity of each researcher creates a degree of bias.

suppression (noun): the prevention or stopping (of something) – The government relies on censorship for its suppression of political dissent.

The Thought Police (noun): in George Orwell's dystopian novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four", the secret police of the superstate who discover and punish wrongthink. – It’s not 1984 anymore but The Thought Police are everywhere.

throttle (verb): to limit a social media user’s reach so that whatever they post goes to fewer people than before – Most people don’t realise that their posts are being throttled by Facebook and they just keep posting regardless.

top secret (adjective): highly classified; of the highest secrecy – The experiments were top secret so the media didn't even know of their existence.

totalitarian (adjective): relating to a centralised system of government that demands total subservience to the state – The citizens were happy to see the end of the old totalitarian regime.

Wikileaks (proper noun): international non-profit website founded by Julian Assange that publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources – Wikileaks is probably most famous for publishing a video showing the crew of a US military helicopter deliberately killing civilians in Baghdad, Iraq.

whistle-blower (noun): a person who informs on an organization (or another person) considered to be acting against the law or immorally – For leaking highly classified US Government information, Edward Snowden has been variously called a traitor, a hero, a whistleblower, a dissident and a patriot.

wrongthink (noun): opinions and beliefs that do not follow orthodox or mainstream thinking – The term "wrongthink" is probably modelled on "crimethink" from George Orwell's dystopian novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" published in 1949.


Contributors: Armando Panacci and Josef Essberger

Reference and Further Reading

Further Educational Resources