Pornology: a cautionary tale about the dangers of believing everything you read on web.

There is no such word as pornology, and it certainly does not mean the knowledge, or study of apples or fruits.

Let me back up a little here.

Every now and then AspieMum and myself take part in quiz nights as fund raising efforts for various schools. Last night we went to one with some friends of ours. We tend to do quite well in the early rounds, but then, as alcohol takes its toll, our performance fades in the second half. We're not really too professional at this: we just prefer to have a good time with our friends.

To cut to the chase, in one of the later rounds, the question came up, What is the meaning of the word, 'Pornology'?

None of us had any idea. Now while we are amateurs at quiz nights, I don't feel it immodest to say that between us we have a better-than-average vocabulary and know most words. If we don't know them, we can make some pretty good guesses based on Latin and Greek and etymological analysis.

After the round was complete, the answer was given as 'the study and knowledge of fruit in general and apples in particular.

This, to me, sounded completely wrong. the root of the word 'porn' has no relation to any word that might be related to fruit or apples. Now pomme might be more appropriate, There's the French word pomme which means apple. There's Italian pomo which is also apple. Latin for apple is Malum, -i. In Greek it's μήλο or melo.

That well-known word, pornography is based on the Greek word, pornographia, which derives from the word porne, or prostitute. So, strictly, pornology means knowledge of or study of prostitutes. It's not what you would call a common word. In fact, I don't think it's a word at all.

Back at home I did some internet searching and discovered a blog by a lady of a certain age (http://dabrah.blogspot.com/2007/11/quizzing-quizmaster.html) who had seen the exact same question and answer at a quiz a few months ago. She, too felt there was something wrong, but she took it no further.

I have to look into these things and embarked on a detective mission to work out where it had come from.

There is real word, pomology. It means the study of fruit, and especially apples.

A search on pornology reveals a lot of made up words about the study of pornography, abbreviated to porn with the -ology suffix added to make it into a word about the study of pornography. There is very little about pornology related to fruit.

A dozen or so hits from the top, however, there are a number of references to pornology in the context of fruit or apples. At first, I thought this confirmed it as an obscure branch of horticulture. Then, however, I realised that those hits are not web pages. They are .PDF and .DOC files. That was the clue I needed.

Search on Pornology and OCR, and you start to get a lot of documents which refer to apples and fruit. They tend to be academic papers written before the internet was widely used, and have since been scanned in to support the on-line research community.

Optical character reading is far from an exact science. Most programs now have some kind of intelligence built into them, which attempts to make decisions between the various possible combinations of letters in a word. Consider an OCR program faced with a choice between pom and porn. Which does it select as the most likely combination of letters? Porn. That word is all over the web, whereas pom is much less common – outside Australia.

Moral of this story? Don't believe everything you read on the web.

Second moral of this story? If you are running a quiz evening, check your own answers, especially if they come off the web.

Third moral of this story, remember that just because it's on the web, or in a newspaper, or given as an answer in a quiz, it's not necessarily true.

I'm expecting that word with the apples meaning to enter popular culture now, simply as a result of a poor OCR decision.

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