July 01, 2005

[expletive discussed]

In today's NYT story on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's role in the 1979 U.S. embassy seizure in Tehran, there's an unusually cumbersome form of bowdlerization:

At 6:45 p.m. Monday, after seeing the picture on the Web site of The Washington Post, Mr. Daugherty sent an e-mail message to three other former hostages, Charles Scott, Donald Sharer and David M. Roeder, which began: "I assume you've noticed that the new Iranian president was one of" - here he inserted an expletive - "who was behind the takeover of the embassy and our incarceration. Not to mention having expressed a determination to pursue a nuclear program that will allow them to develop a nuclear weapon." [emphasis added]

This is not only inelegant, it's almost surely wrong. I can't think of any expletive that would result in a grammatical sentence if inserted in the gap in the phrase "the new Iranian president was one of __ who was behind the takeover of the embassy". You'd have to add some sort of non-expletive determiner as well, like "the c***s*****s" or "those a**h***s".

Anyhow, what's wrong with the old-fashioned methods? If they were good enough for Richard Nixon and the press coverage of the Watergate tapes, they should be good enough for Mr. Daughterty's email about Ahmedinejad:

The two men met in Nixon's Old Executive Office Building hideaway suite on May 18, 1973, and the president distastefully recalled how Kleindienst, "that tower of jelly," and Petersen had told him April 15 that Haldeman and Ehrlichman should resign immediately. "A bunch of [expletive] stuff," the president told Haldeman, then added:

"What I mean to say is this. We're talking in the confidence of this room. I don't give a [expletive] what comes out on you or John or even on poor, damn, dumb John Mitchell. There is going to be a total pardon."

Of course, these days most of Nixon's expletives would not even be deleted, according to Stephen Ambrose:

Nor will most viewers [of Oliver Stone's movie] realize that they are getting a cruel distortion of the language Nixon ordinarily used. In Stone's movie, he has Nixon saying "fuck" throughout -- in one scene, eight times. In fact, Nixon was a shy Quaker boy who seldom used locker-room language. The bulk of the "expletive deleted" words that Nixon blocked out on his transcript version of the tapes were "hell" and "damn." I have listened many times to the available tapes, some sixty hours' worth, recording conversations between Nixon and his closest advisers when they were in deep trouble, and I never heard him say "fuck." William Safire told me that Nixon sometimes said "asshole." He used "son of a bitch" regularly. In general, Nixon's language was mild, especially in comparison with that of Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy. Stone creates the opposite impression.

I wonder if this is entirely true. The WaPo paragraph quoted above has the sentence

I don't give a [expletive] what comes out on you or John or even on poor, damn, dumb John Mitchell.

You could substitute "damn" for that deleted expletive, but would make no sense given that "damn" is left in the clear, a mere dozen words later. Neither "hell" nor "son of a bitch" nor even "asshole" will work in that context.

I guess that particular expletive must have been "shit":

Why, Aitken agonizes, did Nixon delete the expletives, and thus highlight their presence even more? "The explanation," he says, "is that the tapes were censored with Hannah Nixon in mind." He quotes the president telling a staffer that "If my mother ever heard me use words like that she would turn over in her grave."

Aitken professes to be astounded by both the explanation and the corresponding public response, considering them examples of invincible American provincialism. He protests fervently that, after all, the worst words showing up on the tape were "shit" and "asshole," and that Nixon never vocalized "the familiar locker-room expressions for sexual intercourse..."

A search of the New York Times site suggests that the Gray Lady didn't consider Rick Perry's mofodiction fit to print, thus avoiding entirely the problem of how to describe it.

Apparently haunted by Richard rather than Hannah Nixon, the Transcript Editing Guidelines of the Presidential Oral History Project of the Miller Center of Public Affairs say under the heading of Profanity

Leave in, as these words communicate the force with which a particular point is made. Also, a transcript peppered with [expletive deleted] reminds one of the Nixon tapes and Watergate.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 1, 2005 10:32 AM