August 08, 2006

They called Hillary a whaaa?

Asterisking objectionable words (as in the iTunes song titles discussed by Arnold Zwicky here, here, and here) requires a careful balance. The asterisker has to conceal enough of the word from impressionable eyes but not so much that it's no longer recognizable to the less faint of heart. So, for instance, motherfucker might be too opaque if it's represented as m***********, but most adult readers would be able to decipher it (given the proper context) if rendered as motherf***er, motherf*****, or even m*****f*****. Beyond the usual suspects of f***, s***, and so forth, it's a subjective task deciding which words get asterisked and how much asterisking of each word is needed.

The columnist Brett Arends faced such a challenge writing in the Boston Herald about nasty epithets slung at Sen. Hillary Clinton by likely voters in the New Hampshire Democratic primary (based on polling conducted by Dick Bennett's American Research Group). The selection of verbal abuse from likely voters begins:

"Lying b**** . . . shrew . . . Machiavellian . . . evil, power-mad witch . . . the ultimate self-serving politician."

(Yes, these are Democrats, not Republicans, using this invective.) In the context of Hillary-bashing, b**** is pretty transparent. We know that the disgruntled respondent isn't calling Clinton a beast or a bimbo, neither a beaut nor a brute. The only word taboo enough to fit the bill is, of course, bitch.

Moving through the litany:

"Criminal . . . megalomaniac . . . fraud . . . dangerous . . . devil incarnate . . . satanic . . . power freak."
And: "Political wh***."

This last one is not quite as obvious as b****, and the writer's use of two unasterisked letters out of five indicates that this is not one of the typical candidates for bowdlerization. But we can safely assume the respondent isn't commenting on Hillary's acumen as a "political whizz," her inexperience as a "political whelp," or her imposing presence as a "political whale." The word is indubitably whore, as bloggers such as Mickey Kaus and James Boyce wasted no time in spelling out.

I don't believe I've ever seen an asterisked version of whore before. Given the generally vicious nature of the characterizations collected by the pollster, this stands out as an unusually dainty concealment. A parenthetical comment by Arends may help explain the cautious asterisking:

(Note: I don't usually like reporting such personal remarks, but in this case you can hardly understand the situation without them. I have no strong personal feelings about the senator.)

If the political situation in New Hampshire in advance of the 2008 primary campaign can't be understood without reference to the abusive (and often misogynistic) anti-Hillary rhetoric among members of her own party, then there's no point in mincing words. We're all adults here — give it to us unexpurgated.

[Update: It's not an asterisking, but Levana Taylor notes that whore is bowdlerized in Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Sergeant's Weddin'," one of the Barrack Room Ballads:

Cheer for the Sergeant's weddin' —
Give 'em one cheer more!
Grey gun-'orses in the lando,
An' a rogue is married to, etc.


Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 8, 2006 11:14 AM