Words that can't be printed in the NYT
The folks at the New York Times
continue to come up with inventive ways to avoid printing seriously
taboo words in its pages. Here's John Hodgman, in the "Comics
Chronicle" of the Book Review,
For all the admirable effort to allow
comics to tell different types of stories, there is also a creeping
sameness to many of these comics: black-and-white, semi- or wholly
autobiographical sketches of drifting daily life and its quiet
epiphanies. [Cartoonist Gabrielle] Bell herself evinces the form
sweetly in her contribution to Mome -- only two of the three words in
its title, "Happy" and "Birthday," can be printed here -- in which she
contrasts two bizarre birthday parties and ends on a beguiling and
luminous panel of the author dancing as if possessed by spirits.
In case Hodgman's wink-wink nudge-nudge allusion went past you, Bell's
piece is "Happy Fuckin' Birthday", from Mome #2 (Fall 2005).
In recent weeks, we here at Language Log Plaza have returned to talking
about taboo vocabulary and taboo avoidance, in Mark Liberman's "Delete
expletives" of 3/29, and Ben Zimmer's "Twonk!"
of 3/30 and "Thinking
specifically about the F-word..." of 4/2, reviving the topic from
our last go-round, in August through October of last year. The Times has been a reliable source of
fun for us, beginning with its struggles with the book titles On Bullshit and Bullshit Nights in Suck City and
continuing with a bizarre piece by Michael Brick (mocked by me in an
August posting) in which he announced that the paper prefers to
avoid "winking" allusions to taboo vocabulary -- "f***", "f-word", or
even "f-bomb" for "fuck" -- and recommended "word-bomb" as a substitute
in this case, a proposal that, blessedly, seems not to have caught on.
Eventually, we came to two September postings describing some families
of avoidance strategies: avoidance
characters (global things like "#$*!", sometimes pronounced, or
even reported in writing, as "bleep", and local avoidance characters,
like asterisks, elliptical periods, hyphens, and underscores, replacing
letters, as in "all f***ed up") and the effing
avoidance strategy, of saying (or writing) things like "F-ing" or
"effing", plus (noted in the same posting) the full ellipsis strategy,
as in "Shopping and...", which concludes the title, in speech as well
as writing, with the word "and".
In October I
noted that the Guardian
seemed to have no qualms about printing "fuck", at least in quotations
where the word is memorably deployed. Posting on the topic then
But, backstage, much was going on. Chris Waigl observed in
her blog that the Guardian Style Guide is
actually explicit on the matter:
do not describe this as "a good, honest old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon word"
because, first, here is no such thing as an Anglo-Saxon word (they
spoke Old English) and, more important, it did not appear until the
late 13th century
We are more liberal than any other newspaper, using words such as cunt
and fuck that most of our competitors would not use.
The editor's guidelines are straightforward:
First, remember the reader, and respect demands that we should not
casually use words that are likely to offend.
Second, use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a
piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a
case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.
Third, the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about
Finally, never use asterisks, which are just a copout.
Good on them.
Meanwhile, a discussion was going on on the American Dialect Society
mailing list (in a thread titled "Obscenity on British TV"), instigated
by a BBC show called "40 Years of F***", celebrating the 40th
anniversary of Kenneth Tynan's saying "fuck"on the telly, in this
revolting piece of trash talk: "I doubt if there are any rational
people to whom the word 'fuck' would be particularly diabolical,
revolting or totally forbidden." (Larry Horn pointed out, the way a
good semanticist should, that Tynan didn't actually USE
the word, he just MENTIONED
Towards the end of this discussion (on 9/24), Chris Waigl noted still
another avoidance strategy, the coyly euphemistic paraphrase:
During the first program of the BBC
Radio 4 Word4Word mini-series, the presenter, Dermot Murnaghan ran into
a bit of a problem when he had to introduce Mark Ravenhill, the author
of the play "Shopping and Fucking". No, he didn't pronounce
"fucking" on the air, and I think he could have avoided talking about
"retail therapy and horizontal refreshment".
In November, Chris blogged
a skit entitled "[The usage/history of] the word 'fuck'", which
has sometimes been (incorrectly) attributed to Monty Python. The
story's still available on her site.
By February, she reported to me in e-mail that she'd come across an
"fuck" in the Guardian
that wasn't in something reported with quotation marks around it, in a
review of Ariel Levy's Female
As Erica Jong, erstwhile celebrator of
the zipless fuck, tells Levy: "Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for
how far we haven't come."
This is, of course, one of those quotes that don't need quotation marks
any more, because they've become common currency.
All was not Chris Waigl, however. Regular correspondent John
Cowan turned up in March to note that science fiction writer Larry
Niven's Known Space series has a number of vocabulary innovations,
including "a set of handy new swearwords" -- some invented ("tanj",
complete with a dubious acronymic etymology, from "there ain't no
justice"), others shifted from their uses in English as We Know It
("censor", with the full force of "fuck"). I replied, in my
quaint lower-case way:
sci fi is a rich source of innovations
in swearing: so many stories, movies, and tv shows involve some sort of
space rangers, characters who would be expected to swear like, well,
troopers, but you can't get away with the appropriate taboo words of
actual english, so you have to invent. niven takes two different
routes here -- total invention and "dirtying" existing non-taboo
words. inventions that suggest existing words are popular too, as
in Farscape's "frell" (suggesting "frig"/"frick"/"fuck" and "hell") and
Red Dwarf's "smeg" ("smegma").
And Mark Liberman noticed, here
on the Language Log, that the
was following in the footsteps of the Guardian
, using "fuck" in
quotes. That was February, and here they go again in June (review
of Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story
... he describes colour with zest and joy, greens he was into like a
snouty pig--huge, luscious jars, greens so fucking dark, satanic, black
holes that could suck your heart out of your chest".
Here at Language Log Plaza we stand with the Guardian
and the Economist
(scarcely sleazy rags),
and we occasionally point our fingers at the Times
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 5, 2006 06:57 PM