August 23, 2007

The NYT transgresses

As far as we can tell here at Language Log Plaza, the New York Times broke new ground yesterday, when it printed the word shit in a quotation from someone other than the President of the United States.  Well, piece-of-shit, but surely that counts as an instance of the word shit.  The expression occurs in "an anonymous, invective-laced phone message" (audio available here) left for Bernard Spitzer, the father of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer; the story begins on page 1, and eventually quotes some of the nasty stuff:

In the message, the caller says, referring to a potential subpoena: "There is not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it. Bernie, your phony loans are about to catch up with you. You will be forced to tell the truth and the fact that your son's a pathological liar will be known to all."

[But wait! Here's the Times a month ago (7/22), quoting Rudy Guiliani saying bullshit, back in 1992: "A block away from City Hall, Mr. Giuliani gave a fiery address, twice calling Mr. Dinkins's proposal "bullshit." The crowd cheered. Mr. Giuliani was jubilant."]

For some time now, we've been tracking the NYT's handling of taboo vocabulary.  The paper's policy is not to print dirty words, even in quotations where they might be relevant, and also not to use asterisking, "[expletive]", "the F word", or other standard avoidance techniques, preferring instead to allude indirectly to the banned words (or to omit the material entirely).  However, over the years the paper has relaxed its policy, allowing shit when the President says it -- first, in 1974, from Richard Nixon (Abe Rosenthal at the time: "We'll only take shit from the President"); then in 1976, attributed to a fictionalized version of Lyndon Johnson; and, more recently, from George W. Bush (details here and here).  The paper has also had to relax its policy on avoidance, in order to refer at all to book titles and the like (Harry Frankfurt's book On Bull_ _ _ _).

But now the Presidential Shit Privilege has been relaxed.  What next?

[Addendum 8/25/07: Grant Barrett writes to report that the NYT "City Room" blog of 8/23 has a note from its standards editor about this latest four-letter word: "We rarely permit the use of profanity in our columns, even in quotations. We made a rare exception in this case because we felt that readers would more easily understand why the Spitzers were so upset about the message if they knew what the language was."]

Meanwhile, here are some examples of NYT shit-avoidance (of several different styles) that we haven't previously blogged:

From Brett Reynolds, 11/21/06: in the "Science Times" section that day, "The Best Science Show on Television?":

'This is where we blow stuff up.' Jamie Hyneman -- who, to be honest, did not actually use the word 'stuff' -- stood...'

Meghan O'Rourke, review of Up Is Up But So Is Down, Book Review of 11/19/06, p. 22:

... Most of the art may have been" -- insert four-letter word here -- "but it was a glorious time.

Elizabeth Weil, Magazine story "The Needle and the Damage Done", 2/11/07, p. 50:

One member described the execution team's training by saying: "Training? We don't have training, realIy." A nurse responsible for mixing the drugs, when asked how much she knew about the anesthetic, said: "I don't study. I just do the job. I don't want to know about it." Another team member dismissed mistakes by saying that "[expletive] does happen."

On another taboo front, the NYT walked a fine line in a review of the show "Nigger Wetback Chink", 6/9/07:  it quoted all three of the ethnic slurs in comments from the actors, but gave the title as "N*W*C*".  (From Ben Zimmer, who got it from Grant Barrett.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 23, 2007 03:08 PM