June 07, 2006

Mock modesty at the NYT

Two correspondents, Douglas Davidson and Mark Swofford, noticed the following baffling paragraph in a New York Times piece on Nice and its Provençal cuisine, 6/4/06, by Mark Bittman:

But do not, under any circumstances, skip the classic niçois version of gnocchi (its name, even in French, cannot be printed here), made with Swiss chard and served with one of three sauces: gorgonzola, pistou or tomato.

A name that is so obscene it cannot be printed in the Times EVEN IN FRENCH?  Ok, you're asking (as Davidson and Swofford were asking): what name?

I sent out an appeal to the full staff at Language Log Plaza, and within a minute or so quick-draw Ben Zimmer had the answer, obtained via a Google search on <gnocchi niçois>: Provençal "merda de can" 'dog shit'.  We know from past experience (see my recent posting) that the NYT is "shit"-averse as well as "fuck"-averse, but this is ridiculous.  Surely Bittman is just toying with us, in an annoyingly obscure way.  (Maybe he's been reading Language Log and knows that our keen linguist's ears prick up when we come across allusions to things that can't be printed in the paper.  Well, he SHOULD be reading Language Log.  It's part of a complete liberal education.)

I smelled a put-on, but before I could do a Google search for French shit in the Times -- in my defense, Thomas Grano and I were busy searching the New Yorker for "a lot of" and "lots of" at the time, and we were hot on the trail of some nice numbers -- Mark Liberman did the work for me.  Mark reported:

A search on the NYT web site ("since 1981") for "merde" turns up 13 examples, e.g. a piece from 1/20/2003 by Craig Smith under the title "Villefranche-sur-Saone Journal: When Bad-Mouthing Wine is a Punishable Offense", which includes the phrase "vin de merde".

William Safire alone has used "merde" twice in his columns, according to that search.

It's true that "merda" turns up nothing, but surely that's because Provençal is massively less frequent than French. And in fact, a search for "merda" returns the helpful query "Did you intend to search for merde?" -- along with an even more helpful spot ad from eBay, asking "Looking for Merda? Find exactly what you want today."

You heard it here: every so often, the merde hits the fan at the Times

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at June 7, 2006 06:45 PM