August 17, 2005

No fuckin' winking at the Times

In my recent posting on linguistic modesty at Henry Holt, I reviewed some episodes of primness in the New York Times, which caused reader Matthew Hutson to point out one that I had somehow missed: Michael Brick's "Longing for a Cuss-Free Zone", in the Fashion and Style section of 7/31/05. Brick fastidiously avoids even the indirect f-bomb (a vivid version of f-word) in favor of the still more indirect word-bomb (and its abbreviated version bomb), used as both noun and verb in his piece.

Brick glosses word-bomb, which he admits is a "clunky construction", at arm's length:

I've made ["word-bomb"] up as a stand-in for a well-known hyphenated term that refers to an actual profanity. In use for at least a decade, the original hyphenated term (which begins with the first letter of the profanity and ends with "bomb") gives a knowing wink to the actual profanity's paradoxical place as a taboo in wide circulation.

And the second-level indirection (avoiding the contaminated letter f) doesn't come with a knowing wink? Yeah, sure. What's next? The word-b, which sidesteps the now possibly contaminated word bomb? Obzo, the rot-13 version of bomb? (Shpx would clearly be too racy.)

Apparently the whole exercise really is designed to keep the NYT from winking at its readers (don't you just hate it when newspapers do that?):

... very rarely does the paper print those obvious, winking, letter-word stand-ins. As the Times's two-page stylebook entry on obscenity says, "An article should not seem to be saying, 'Look, I want to use this word but they won't let me.'"

So what, kids, does word-bomb say? "I'd never use this word in polite company, and can barely bring myself to allude to it, even very obliquely"? Well, aren't you fastidious!

As icing on the cake, there's a letter on 8/7/05 objecting to Brick's verbing of the noun (word-)bomb, as in: "Outside office buildings smokers bomb their bosses"! A. Scott Falk writes, "This inconsistent use of a misguided neologism strikes me as a greater affront to the English language in polite society than any familiar four-letter word could ever be." You read it here: verbing is so evil, such a symptom of the breakdown of society, that it's even worse than fuck. So: no fuckin' verbing! And no fuckin' winking, either! And wipe that smirk off your face!

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 17, 2005 08:18 PM