June 05, 2006

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, 6/4/06:

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 languished.

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
see swearwords

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 using it.
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 it.)

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 on 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 occurrence of "fuck" in the Guardian that wasn't in something reported with quotation marks around it, in a review of Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs:

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 Economist 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, 6/3/06):

... 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 and snicker.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 5, 2006 06:57 PM