April 29, 2007

Asterisking and other orthographic rituals

Kerim Friedman and Omri Ceren wrote to draw my attention to the proposal by David at Ironic Sans to "Uncensor the Internet with Greasemonkey" (4/27/2007) by removing certain cases of typographical bleeping:

Is there a way for us to avoid all this f****ng unnecessary self-censorship littering the internet?
There is now. I've created the "Uncensor the Internet" script for Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in that lets you add all sorts of useful functionality to your web browser, available here). If you're running Firefox with the Greasemonkey plug-in, just install this script, and see all the foul language that people are pretending they don't use.

But as David points out, those people aren't really "pretending they don't use" the words in question. Instead, they're performing a curious sort of ritual acknowledgment of a social consensus that the words are in some way dangerous, or at least problematic:

There's an article on-line from Money Magazine called "50 Bulls**t Jobs." That's right. Bulls**t. With those two asterisks in there. Come on. We know what word they mean. So why not just say it? If they think we're adult enough to be reminded of the word, why don't they think we're adult enough to see the actual word? (The article is based on a book by the same name, but without the asterisks)
Oh, I know. It's the kids. They might be reading. Sh*t. I didn't f*cking think of that. It would be terrible if they would see the word "Bulls**t" in print, but it's okay for them to see it with the asterisks, right? They'll have no idea what that means.

As David ironically demonstrates, all the writers and readers involved in this enterprise know exactly what words are being written. Are the asterisks just an attempt to obey the letter of a prohibition while violating its spirit? This is certainly true of the verbal gymnastics that the FCC requires on the radio, and it's also how I used to see the asterisks that David's script removes. But recently, I've come to the conclusion that they're really a kind of ritual orthographic gesture, which is often not required by any formal policy, but still serves a social purpose. When you put in an asterisk or two, while leaving the identity of the word obvious in context, you're using (or mentioning) the word, while at the same time saying to your readers "yes, I acknowledge that this word has a special status".

That's how I interpret the quoted remarks of Lisa Dale, the principal of Benson High School in Omaha, Nebraska, who got in trouble for green-lighting a section of the student paper that discussed usage of the word "nigger":

"I probably wouldn't, however, looking back -- we'd use the asterisk," Dale said of the paper's decision to spell out the N-word.

The whole point of the published discussion was that the word is problematic; but failing to asterisk or otherwise disguise the word itself still shocked or offended some readers. The offense seems to be a symbolic one, like failing to salute the flag, or to cover or uncover your head at certain times and places, or stand or sit at certain points in a ritual. Or, perhaps, this is like the risk of magical damage that some people believe is created by praising someone or remarking on good fortune, which then must be mitigated by the gesture of "knocking on wood" or making the mano cornuta. Many people who are not really superstitious, in any serious sense, may still perform these rituals half-ironically.

Taboo avoidance or mitigation comes in several other flavors as well . In between the notes from Kerim and the note from Omri came this compact and efficient communiqué from Justin Mansfield, under the Subject heading "Typographical bleeping":

2 things:

1) aposiopesis
2) gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk

Aposiopesis is the traditional name for "the rhetorical device by which the speaker or writer deliberately stops short and leaves something unexpressed, but yet obvious, to be supplied by the imagination, giving the impression that she is unwilling or unable to continue. It often portrays being overcome with passion (fear, anger, excitement) or modesty." The "something unexpressed" can be a more-or-less obvious obscene epithet -- "why, you son of a ..." -- and in such cases, the ellipsis can accomplish a sort of taboo avoidance.

A more complex and aesthetically satisfying type of taboo-avoiding aposiopesis is the Miss Susie/Lucy rhyme. Here the performer and the audience share knowledge of taboo words, which are contextually determined, sometimes even performed, and then transformed into harmless alternatives, generating much group glee on grade-school playgrounds:

Miss Lucy had a steamboat
The steamboat had a bell
Miss Lucy went to heaven
and the steamboat went to

Hello operator
Get me number nine
If you disconnect me
I will kick your fat

Behind the refrigerator ...

As for gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk, this famous phrase is discussed in the American Heritage Dictionary as follows:

The obscenity fuck is a very old word and has been considered shocking from the first, though it is seen in print much more often now than in the past. Its first known occurrence, in code because of its unacceptability, is in a poem composed in a mixture of Latin and English sometime before 1500. The poem, which satirizes the Carmelite friars of Cambridge, England, takes its title, "Flen flyys," from the first words of its opening line, "Flen, flyys, and freris," that is, "fleas, flies, and friars." The line that contains fuck reads "Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk." The Latin words "Non sunt in coeli, quia," mean "they [the friars] are not in heaven, since." The code "gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk" is easily broken by simply substituting the preceding letter in the alphabet, keeping in mind differences in the alphabet and in spelling between then and now: i was then used for both i and j; v was used for both u and v; and vv was used for w. This yields "fvccant [a fake Latin form] vvivys of heli." The whole thus reads in translation: "They are not in heaven because they fuck wives of Ely [a town near Cambridge]."

This is a sort of 15th-century version of the usenet-era rot13 convention. The idea in both cases seems to have been that the cipher is transparent and easy to decode -- many news readers used to have a rot13-function accessible via a single keystroke, as I recall, and "one letter back" is easy to calculate in your head -- but still, it isn't readable without a modest bit of explicit effort, so that no one can complain of having been offended unless they took the trouble to put themselves in the way of it to start with.

The typographical bleeping business (e.g. by substituted asterisks for one or two letters) is not like this, since recognition of the intended word is effortless and automatic. Instead, it seems to be a less elitist and more lexically-specific version of the practice described by Herbert Halpert in "Folklore and Obscenity: Definitions and Problems", The Journal of American Folklore, 75(297), 1962:

Earlier in this century when anthropologists were busy collecting American Indian myths and tales in text, they usually published them in a museum or university anthropological series, with English translations. Invariably, when you get to the lustful doings of Coyote or some other trickster figure, or to version of the toothed-vagina motif, the English translation suddenly lapses into Latin.

The practice is older than that, I think -- I've seen it in 19th-century documents as well. In any case, it doesn't actually hide the content of the passage from anyone likely to be reading it (though it has no doubt sent some teenagers to look things up in Lewis & Short). Among those who have learned what words like paedicare meant, using a shared alternative language is like adding asterisks: a ritual way of acknowledging that the material has a special status. The tradition of rendering phrases in Latin dealt mainly with taboo concepts, however, where merely switching to a more formal register or even using English euphemisms wouldn't be enough, while asterisking focuses on taboos associated with particular words.

[A list of other LL posts on vocabulary taboos is here.]

[Peter Sattler writes:

I, too, do not know when the "dirty stuff in Latin" technique began, but I did immediately recall some passages from William Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation." Take, for example, this 1642 discussion of criminal sexual activities:

Qest: What sodmiticall acts are to be punished with death, & what very facte (ipso facto) is worthy of death, or, if ye fact it selfe be not capitall, what circomstances concurring may make it capitall?

Ans: In ye judiciall law (ye moralitie wherof concerneth us) it is manyfest yt carnall knowledg of man, or lying wth man, as with woman, cum penetratione corporis, was sodomie, to be punished with death; what els can be understood by Levit: 18. 22. & 20. 13. & Gen: 19. 5? 2ly. It seems allso yt this foule sine might be capitall, though ther was not penitratio corporis, but only contactus & fricatio usq ad effusionem seminis....

Of course, this shift to Latin may have as much to do with the nature of legal discussions as sexual discussions.

A more amusing example emerges repeated in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who discusses his amorous adventures in an odd mishmash of Spanish, French, and Latin — yet in a fashion that seems just as determined to leave the "hidden" material clearly visible. Here are two examples from 1668, pulled off the Net:

[I] Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle, to whom I confess je sum demasiado kind, nuper ponendo saepe mes mains in sus dos choses de son breast. Mais il faut que je leave it lest it bring me to alguno major inconvenience.

[A]nd there she came into the coach to me, and yo did besar her and tocar her thing, but ella was against it and labored with much earnestness...at last did yo did make her tener mi cosa in her mano, while mi mano was sobra her pectus, and so did hazer with grand delight

I wish I had the Pepys here (I almost typed "in hand"), because I seem to remember that, in parts, the diarist would reserve Latin for the dirtiest passages. But these passages don't seem to support that memory.


[Andrew Gray comments:

What we read of Pepys is decoded *already* - he wrote in a cryptic shorthand to ensure privacy, and therefore he didn't really need to obfuscate anything to protect the casual reader. He "encoded" both normal English and the mishmashed passages alike, I believe. The mismash was probably just intended to confuse his wife if she stumbled across it - it's immediately apparent to an educated cosmopolitan reader (or, even, an educated Cosmopolitan reader), but quite possibly would have been meaningless to her. (Or perhaps she would have managed it perfectly well and he was just cocky about his cleverness - either is plausible!)

As to the Latin, Pepys has been reissued in about a dozen versions, each purporting to be "full" and each just omitting slightly less material than the previous one, as people grew a little more accepting of the dirty bits. (There's a good discussion of this in 'Dr Bowdler's Legacy', to digress slightly). It strikes me as entirely possible that one otherwise expunged edition kept a lot of the obfuscated Italian/French/Spanish bits, but just rewrote them in Latin in order to have the desired effect... and, of course, it would look perfectly normal when you encountered one of these Latinised passages.


[Another reader adds:

I am far, far, from a Pepys scholar. But what I understand from the preface to the Latham and Matthews edition of his diary is that he used one of the existing systems of shorthand in his day -- like writing in Gregg or Pitman in 1925: obscure to the common reader, but hardly a cipher.

Is there any indication whether the shorthand was merely a time- or effort-saving convenience, or was also used with the purpose of foiling casual readers? ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 29, 2007 08:33 AM