October 20, 2006

Annals of self-censorship: avoiding the F-letter

A reader sent in a couple of examples where the letter F is omitted from the abbreviated form WTF, producing WT_:

(link) I submitted over 75 bugs to their (now closed?, wt_?) bug tracking system
(link) No Firefox... WT_??? If you are not ready to support Modern Browsers, then you are NOT READY!!!!!

Although just searching for {WT_} mostly turns up trash, there are plenty more genuine examples of initial-letter-avoidance out there:

(link) WT_ is this anyways???
(link) WT_ is going on ?
(link) wt_ is wrong with giant and espn's avatar ! ?
(link) Woodchip . . . wt_ are you smokin ?

However, I haven't yet been able to find any examples of the logically-related step, which would be for people to start talking about the _-word, the _-bomb, and so on. (Or should it be the *-word?) Anyhow, in the next stage after that, the underscores and asterisks themselves would have to be omitted -- in favor of what?

Arnold Zwicky has compiled a convenient archive of Language Log postings on taboo vocabulary, but I believe that this is the first case in which the taboo item was a single letter.


[Update 10/21/2006 -- Omri Ceren writes:

This might not be self-censorship as much as geek wordplay. Playing around with brb and wtf in order to make them more or less words is kind of a witticism / showy way to play around...

So occasionally I'll be in conversations where someone will say "double-u tee eff" instead of "what the fuck" - it's not self-censorship, it's just super-self-referential geekiness

I think that this wt_ could be the same thing - it's playing around with the abbreviation itself (i.e. "I couldn't write out 'fuck', 'f' stands for 'fuck', let's highlight that by censoring it") It's just geeks trying to put a new spin on a set of letters you see 100s of times a day, not prudes.

That could well be true. But one of the funny things about "WTF" is that it's neither an acronym (in the technical sense of a sequence of initial letters pronounced like a word, e.g. NASA), nor an initialism (initial letters pronounced individually, as in IBM) -- instead, it's usually just a short-hand way of writing the three words whose initial letters it spells. Thus leaving out the F stands for typographically bleeping the expression, in a way that omitted the F in F-word wouldn't...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 20, 2006 04:33 PM