Removing Profanity from the Source Tree

Warning: this article contains profanity.

Linus Torvalds recently stepped away from kernel development temporarily in order to think about how to be less harsh with developers in certain situations. Simultaneous with his departure was a patch introducing a new Code of Conduct into the kernel source tree. The effects of this are beginning to be felt.

Jarkko Sakkinen recently posted a patch to change a kernel comment containing the word "fuck" to use the word "hug" instead. So the code comment, "Wirzenius wrote this portably, Torvalds fucked it up" would become "Wirzenius wrote this portably, Torvalds hugged it up".

Steven Rostedt replied to this, saying that the code in question had changed so much that the original comment was out of date, and it should just be removed entirely. He said, "that will be an accurate change with or without CoC."

Jonathan Corbet remarked, "I'd much rather see either deletion or a rewrite over bleeping out words that somebody might not like." And Jiri Kosina agreed, saying, "turning comments into something that often doesn't make sense to anybody at all is hardly productive."

Sergey Senozhatsky pointed out that Linus was the author of the original self-deprecating comment. He asked, "Linus has made a comment, in his own words, about his own code. Why would anyone be offended by this?"

And Tobin C. Harding remarked of the original code comment, "This is my favourite comment to date in the kernel source tree. Surely there are still some people working on the kernel that do so for fun. I actually laughed out loud when I first stumbled upon this file."

In a different thread, Kees Cook said he agreed with removing "fuck" from the source tree, but felt that the word "hug" was not a good replacement, since it didn't maintain the original meaning. He said:

"This API is hugged" doesn't make any sense to me. "This API is hecked" is better, or at least funnier (to me). "Hug this interface" similarly makes no sense, but "Heck this interface" seems better. "Don't touch my hecking code", "What the heck were they thinking?" etc...."hug" is odd.

He added, "Better yet, since it's only 17 files, how about doing context-specific changes? 'This API is terrible', 'Hateful interface', 'Don't touch my freakin' code', 'What in the world were they thinking?' etc.?"

Geert Uytterhoeven replied to Kees, saying, "As a non-native speaker, I find both replacements ['hug' and 'heck'] difficult to understand. While many of the original comments are easy to grasp for +7 year olds who were never taught English, but are exposed to modern global ways of communication." And Matthias Brugger also said, "I don't think that the word 'fuck' is something we have to ban from the source code, but I don't care too much. Anyway, please don't change it to something like heck as it might be difficult for non-English speakers to understand."

Some developers just shook their heads in bewilderment. Davidlohr Bueso remarked of Jarkko's original patch, "I hope this is some kind of joke. How would anyone get offended by reading technical comments? This is all beyond me."

John Paul Adrian Glaubitz added, "We're all grown up and don't freak out when a piece of text contains the word 'fuck'. I still don't understand why people think that the word 'fuck' is what would keep certain groups from contributing to the Linux kernel. In all seriousness, it doesn't."

And Jens Axboe said, "Agree, this is insanity."

David Miller also said, "Whether or not it is a joke, it is censorship. And because of that, I have no intention to apply any patches like this to any code I am in charge of."

At one point Jarkko pointed to the part of the Code of Conduct he relied on when posting his original patch: "Harassment includes the use of abusive, offensive or degrading language, intimidation, stalking, harassing photography or recording, inappropriate physical contact, sexual imagery and unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors."

He felt that the word "fuck" clearly fell into the category of offensive language.

James Bottomley replied, "No, because use of what some people consider to be bad language isn't necessarily abusive, offensive or degrading. Our most heavily censored medium is TV and 'fuck' is now considered acceptable in certain contexts on most channels in the UK and EU."

Taking another tack, James also pointed out that the Documentation/process/code-of-conduct-interpretation.rst file said specifically, "contributions submitted for the kernel should use appropriate language. Content that already exists predating the Code of Conduct will not be addressed now as a violation." Which, James said, "definitely means there should be no hunting down of existing comments in kernel code."

Jarkko replied, "Ugh, was not aware that there two documents."

The discussion petered out shortly thereafter, but this is the sort of discussion we can expect to see again and again on the linux-kernel mailing list, as long as the Code of Conduct retains its current form.

The interesting thing for me is that the original issue had to do specifically with Linus' rough statements toward developers in specific situations. If he felt that someone should know better regarding a given issue, and already had been told how a given patch or feature should be done, but still persisted in trying to get a rejected patch or feature into the kernel, Linus might yell at them.

Somehow this has morphed into removing banned sets of "unacceptable" words from code comments. And, it did this in a brief matter of a few weeks. I wonder what else is in store.

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Zack Brown is a tech journalist at Linux Journal and Linux Magazine, and is a former author of the "Kernel Traffic" weekly newsletter and the "Learn Plover" stenographic typing tutorials. He first installed Slackware Linux in 1993 on his 386 with 8 megs of RAM and had his mind permanently blown by the Open Source community. He is the inventor of the Crumble pure strategy board game, which you can make yourself with a few pieces of cardboard. He also enjoys writing fiction, attempting animation, reforming Labanotation, designing and sewing his own clothes, learning French and spending time with friends'n'family.

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