August 17, 2005

Modesty at Henry Holt

One of the staff assignments here at Language Log Plaza is to keep track of instances of conspicuous linguistic modesty in the media. It all started with a little rant by Geoff Pullum about how NPR managed to broadcast an entire talk show about Harry Frankfurt's book On Bullshit without a single mention of the title. Meanwhile, the very modest New York Times refers to the book as On Bull _ _ _ _. (It's been on the NYT Book Review's nonfiction best seller list for 20 weeks now, so the issue comes up at least once a week.)

A while back, I noted the way the Book Review coped with a double-whammy, the title of Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: Another Bull _ _ _ _ Night ... (avoiding shit with one kind of ellipsis mark and Suck City with another).

And now, under the imprint of Henry Holt and Company (the Metropolitan Books division), Guy Deutscher goes to such lengths to avoid the naughty word fart that he has to supply clues to its identity.

The word comes up on p. 85 of Deutscher's entertaining and informative The Unfolding of Language, in a discussion of Grimm's law and the doublets it gives rise to in modern English, like pater(nal) and father:

Sometimes the siblings have gone such separate ways that upon meeting up they would hardly give each other a second glance. This is the case with the borrowed part(ridge) and the native ****. (The Greeks, who are the ultimate source of the loanword partridge, presumably gave it this name because of the loud whirring sound it makes when suddenly flushed out.)

We have the Grimm's law context, which suggests that the averted word begins with the Germanic counterpart to p, that is, f -- and, of course, that it ends with the Germanic counterpart to t, that is, in Deutscher's transcription th (as in tooth). That would suggest something like farth. The allusion to loud whirring sounds is, I figure, supposed to bring the reader to a similar-sounding naughty English word that has something to do with sound. That's probably enough to lead you to the word fart.

But why such indirection? Even fuck doesn't usually get all four of its letters ellipted. Surely f**t would have been sufficiently prim, and if the editors were worried that readers might think of foot first, why then f*rt would have worked. The story about whirring partridges would still be necessary, to account for the semantic relationship, but the whole business would have been easier on the reader.

[Added 8/21/05: Deutscher has written to ask: "... and what about the joy of discovery - is that worth nothing?" Ah, the "****" and the whirring partridges were meant as a little puzzle for the reader, but I didn't see that.]

Me, I would have gone for fart, flat out. It's a bit on the vulgar side, but we're not in the prim pages of the NYT here, and we're all adults. (Not that I would warn children away from Deutscher's book, but I suspect that few children would make it through an extended discussion of triliteral roots in Semitic, or of the laryngeal hypothesis and the discovery of Hittite. Great stuff for teenagers, though.) Anyway, sometimes a little vulgarity is just the ticket, as in one of John Mortimer's essays in Where There's a Will, p. 141:

Some of the best things in life, works that are a pleasure to be handed on to the generations to come, have vulgarity and sentimentality in spades... Indeed it's impossible to read through, say, the novels of Virginia Woolf without longing for a touch, a mere hint of vulgarity or sentimentality, a tear-jerking scene perhaps, or even a joke about a fart.

[Added 8/21/05: A correspondent going by the name Yarrow has written to observe that Virginia Woolf was not above a certain coarseness on occasion. Yarrow points to the beginning of Orlando:

He--for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it--was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. It was the colour of an old football, and more or less the shape of one, save for the sunken cheeks and a strand or two of coarse, dry hair, like the hair on a cocoanut.

The "no doubt of his sex" is indirect, but the description of the old head is vividly earthy.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 17, 2005 12:18 PM