October 09, 2006

Avoidance omnibus

This is an omnibus issue of Annals of Taboo Avoidance, with seven items, going back to June 7th and forward to today.

1.  Back in June, I mocked the New York Times for not letting a reporter use the French word merde and pushing him into ostentatious avoidance in describing

... the classic niçois version of gnocchi (its name, even in French, cannot be printed here)...

At the time, I reported Mark Liberman's discovery that over the years the NYT had not in fact been particularly shy about printing the word (in French); even William Safire used it.  But another discovery of Mark's got to me too late for inclusion in my posting: since 1981, the paper had printed "dog poop" (not a bad translation of the name of the gnocchi in question) 17 times, so it would have been available as an alternative to this baffling allusion to the name of the dish.

I've reported here that the Times has set itself a tough task in dealing with taboo vocabulary.  On the one hand, it absolutely insists that taboo words not be printed, even in quotations where they would cast some light on the character or emotional state of a speaker or writer -- though on occasion (most recently, in July) it makes an exception for the President of the United States. 

On the other hand, it has a stated policy of not using ostentatious avoidance: no "F-word", "F-bomb", "freaking", "expletive deleted", "S---", or the like.  In cases where someone at the paper (writer or editor) thinks some allusion to the taboo word is called for, it will stretch this second principle to allow things like "a word that cannot be printed in this newspaper" or "a name that cannot be printed in a family newspaper" (as above, with reference to the gnocchi).  But the paper's practice is inconsistent, no doubt because different editors choose to perform this balancing act in different ways.  And so we get things like

"Bull," Dean snapped, using a slightly more elongated version of the term.

which I reported on a little while ago.

Now two more from the Times that slipped past during the summer.

2.  On July 7th, an article by Kirk Johnson told about the journal kept by Columbine High School killer Eric Harris, including the report that

One entry taken from the Harris home was simply called "Black."  "I can't see a [expletive deleted] thing," it said, "so what the hell am I gonna write about, how I can't see anything?  My mind is black, sight is black, everything is black."

There's a fairly easy fix for this, something along the lines of:

One entry taken from the Harris home was simply called "Black."  In it the author says he can't see a thing and asks "so what the hell am I gonna write about..."

Along similar lines, the gnocchi piece could simply have omitted any reference to the name of the dish.  And Dean could have been reported as snapping an objection. 

3.  On July 23rd, guest "On Language" columnist Ashley Parker wrote about word truncations in the lingo of some young women she knows.  At the conclusion, one of them (Parker's younger sister Justine) deflects a maternal punishment:

"And it is the first time -- I prom.  I prom, madre.  So true.  I'm sor.  I'm really sor."

My mom let her go with just a warning.  When Justine relayed the whole story to me the next day, I gave the only appropriate response I could think of: "She didn't punish you?  What the freak-a-leak."

What the freak-a-leak indeed.

Matthew Hutson, who wrote me about this column, marveled at the way the Times balked at "f-bomb" but was willing to print "freak-a-leak" (twice, in fact).  But Parker wanted to illustrate that she had picked up a lot of her sister's lingo herself, so it's hard to see how to write around the avoidance word "freak".

4.  Then from Eric Jusino came a pointer to an article in the Boise State University Arbiter of July 26th, complaining about the extreme heat at the time, under the headline

It's Fºn HOT

This is very ostentatious avoidance indeed (though Justino and I both thought it was clever), and, not surprisingly, elicited an angry letter (of August 21st) from a faculty member protesting the "abbreviated form of the 'f-word'" in the paper:

Vulgar language (a.k.a. cursing, profanity, obscenity) is unprofessional and should have no place in a collegiate publication; the AP and UPA stylebooks will tell you as much."

5.  Next an AP story of October 6th ("Sienna Miller Apologizes to Pittsburgh"), passed on to me by Edward Carney:

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Sienna Miller, who disparaged Pittsburgh in a magazine interview, apologized on Friday, saying her remarks were taken out of context and that she found the city and residents gracious.

The 24-year-old British actress, in town shooting the screen adaptation of Michael Chabon's novel ''The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,'' called the city a name that sounds like Pittsburgh, but contains an expletive. Her comments appear in the latest edition of Rolling Stone, which hit newsstands Friday.

Rolling Stone quotes "Shitsburgh" as is.

[Addendum, 10/10: Charles Belov points out that "a name that sounds like Pittsburgh, but contains an expletive" would be "Pissburgh"; "Shitsburgh is a name that RHYMES with "Pittsburgh" and contains an expletive.  Inept euphemizing!]

6.  From yesterday's Observer Magazine -- the Observer is the Sunday counterpart to the Guardian -- a jokey taboo avoidance that echoes the Dean quotation above, pointed out  to me by Jasper Milvain:

"Someone shouted, out of a caravan, at me. 'Where you trying to go, you deuced poltroon?' I have changed both adjective and noun to protect my sources."

7.  Finally, from Aaron Dinkin, a report of an interview on Philadelphia NPR station WHYY this morning, in which the interviewer Q (Marty Moss-Coane) and the interviewee A (John F. Harris) try to negotiate what you can say on the air in the United States.  The exchange went:

A: "... they just don't give a ... uh ... darn -- I'm not sure what I can say --"
Q: "'Darn' is okay."
A: "'Darn' is okay."

There's a question about whether "darn" is okay?  What have we come to?

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at October 9, 2006 02:28 PM