February 25, 2007

Blame it on the word!

The headline -- page 1 in the New York Times, 2/18/07 -- reported:

With One Word,
  Children's Book
    Sets Off Uproar

In the jump on page 23, a bolded inset summarizes the story:

Teachers, authors and
librarians take sides
over a story that
names a body part.

The body part in question is the scrotum, and the word scrotum appears on the very first page of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron, who won a Newbery Medal for the book.  The 10-year-old protagonist Lucky "heard the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog ... on the scrotum", as Julie Bosman writes in the NYT piece.

Wait, wait!  The WORD is the problem?

Language is right out there on the front lines.  We get to thoughts, ideas, concepts, proposals, beliefs, recollections, etc. through what's spoken or written.  So when there's a problem, we're inclined to blame the language.  In this case, it's definitely a bum rap.

The problem isn't the WORD scrotum.  The problem is referring to this body part at all.

There aren't a lot of choices here.  In plain language, there's nutsack/nut-sack/nut sack (815,000 Google webhits) and the variant spellings nutsac/nut-sac/nut sac (55,000 hits).  (The Latin-derived medical term scrotum gets 1,460,000 hits, by the way.)  And there's the metonymic alternative balls.  But these alternatives would not have done in a children's book.  There are less specific terms she might have chosen, for example the euphemistic private parts or privates or the medical genitals or genitalia, but since these are less specific they are are also less informative

Patron is reported as saying, in Bosman's words, that "one of the themes of the book is that Lucky is preparing herself to be a grown-up" and that "learning about language and body parts ... is very important to her."  Patron says of scrotum: "The word is just so delicious".  (Perhaps because it combines the initial sound-symbolic scr- of scratch, scrape, etc. with the elevated -otum of factotum and -tum of quantum, sanctum, etc.)

So she chose the topic (basing her account on a true incident involving a friend's dog), and then selected the most accurate term that wasn't street talk.  And librarians around the country balked at stocking the book on their shelves, despite the Newbery Medal.

All except one of the librarians Bosman quotes blame the word:

"If I were a third- or fourth-grade teacher, I wouldn't want to have to explain that."

"I don't think our teachers, or myself, want to do that vocabulary lesson." [Nice example of subject myself for my collection of remarkable reflexives.]

"Sad to say, I didn't order it for either of my schools, based on 'the word.' "

One of them eventually gets the point.  She's quoted first as issuing a general complaint:

"This book included what I call a Howard Stern-type shock treatment just to see how far they could push the envelope, but they didn't have the children in mind," Dana Nilsson, a teacher and librarian in Durango, Colo., wrote on LM_Net, a mailing list that reaches more than 16,000 school librarians. "How very sad."

But in a quotation at the end of the article, she blames the thing referred to and not the word that refers to it:

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. "I don't want to start an issue about censorship," she said. "But you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature."

"At least not for children," she added.

I'd imagine that the people objecting to the passage in Patron's book would not be satisfied if Patron altered "on the scrotum" to "on the genitals" or "on his genitalia".  You'd still have men's genitalia in children's lit, and you'd still have something to explain to the kiddies.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Note added by Geoff Pullum: See Gelf Magazine's Gelf Log for some textual evidence that in fact literature for young people has repeatedly had references to scrotums in the past (hat tip to Susie Bright's Journal). The crazies who are prudishness to new extremes of looniness in this country are not representatives of tradition.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 25, 2007 01:36 PM