August 25, 2007

Another year of taboo avoidance

It's been almost a year since I assembled an omnibus posting (10/9/06) on taboo avoidance, and the mail has been piling up alarmingly.  And now that I've posted briefly on taboo avoidance and plain speaking in the New York Times, it's time to look at the rest of the media, blogs, and the like. 

It's dangerous to try to discern general trends in these things, but my impression is that while we might be living in "the Golden Age of taboo avoidance" (as Ben Zimmer has put it to me), we're also seeing some publications guardedly moving towards somewhat greater openness.  The result is, of course, confusion and inconsistency.  And, in the case of automatic asterisking/bleeping programs, downright absurdity.

Here's a sampling of things that came to me over the past year that haven't been blogged on here.  It doesn't pretend to be a complete survey of taboo avoidance (or use) during the year; it merely illustrates a variety of approaches to the problem.  (The examples are grouped into rough categories for exposition; no serious analysis is intended by this categorization.)

At this point, after two years on the Taboo Desk at LLP, I would like to take a vacation from tracking taboo avoidance, so that I can attend to some other topics.

1.  Approaches to use/avoidance. 

Some publications generally go for avoidance.  Some, like the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the Economist are on record as using words like cunt and fuck where they are newsworthy (almost always in quotations).  So you get the Economist, back on 2.28/02, in reporting a minor transport-ministry scandal, publishing the revelatory quote:

"We're all fucked. I'm fucked. You're fucked. The whole department is fucked. It's been the biggest cock-up ever and we are all completely fucked."

Lane Greene, who relayed this to me on 7/4/06, noted that the Guardian used cunt considerably more often than one might have expected, sometimes in the writer's own voice, as in this column by Peter Tatchell:

Swapping gossip with the girlfriend of a man who was previously my long-term lover, we agree he was definitely aroused by both the male and female form; equally delighted and sexually voracious with a cock or a cunt.

Nevertheless, the impulse towards modesty, or presumed modesty, is strong these days.

2.  Circumlocution, paraphrase, and allusion.

The Wall Street Journal (like the New York Times) generally avoids asterisks and the like, in favor of work-arounds, sometimes elaborate and coy ones, as in this article (of 8/18/06) about the movie Snakes on a Plane:

Also, the filmmakers added new scenes to the film, including one where Mr. [Samuel L.] Jackson's character delivers an exclamation similar to one a sound-alike had uttered in a fan trailer. In it, Mr. Jackson repeatedly uses an Oedipal expletive to describe both the snakes and the plane.

(Thanks to Jake Seliger.  More Snakes on a Plane material from Ben Zimmer here.)

Even more tortured is Leah Garchik's

The opening conversational line, scrawled on the work, was the three-word declaration 'Men are (donkey-apertures), ...

from her San Francisco Chronicle column of 10/17/06 (pointer from Ned Deily).  Figuring this one out is a lot like solving a crossword puzzle -- and it doesn't really work in British English.

Indirect allusion can get too indirect.  Here's Gawker's complaint (passed on by Matthew Hutson on 10/10/06) about advice from a Washington Post editor asking that writers on the paper find ways to avoid "the N-word", which the editor found "almost cutesy", recommending instead something like "a well-known racial epithet":

Oh, but that's no fun -- putting it like that could mean any racial epithet, and there are just so many to choose from!

(Compare the Times's reporting in the Isaiah Washington affair, where the offending expression -- faggot -- was alluded to as "the remark" and "the slur".)

Equally indirect is the avoidance of jackass on Fox and Friends, as reported by Jon Lighter on ADS-L 8/8/07:

In an oblique allusion to the MTV show Jackass, anchor Steve Doocy remarked a few minutes ago that Johnny Knoxville hosted a show "with a very inappropriate name."  The name was not uttered.

In his 10/18/06 "On Language" column in the Chicago Tribune, Nathan Bierma found himself trying to explain IM chat slang without crossing over the paper's language lines.  It turned out that the people he interviewed didn't always get the message:

ROTFLMAO: About one in three students recognized this as "rolling on the floor laughing my [uh, arm] off" (and they knew what replaces "arm"). A few only knew "ROTFL," and a few only knew "LMAO."

WTH: About half identified this as "what the [heck]?" though several said they prefer "WTF," ending with a different four-letter word.

Jane Acheson wrote on 10/24/06 to comment on the "hilariously circumspect" approach the Boston Globe takes to dubious vocabulary, citing sport stories with

I don't give a [care].

The Yankees don't [inhale excessively].

in them (the second of which took her some time to interpret).  I noted that you get rather a lot of hits for {"don't give a [care]"} and {"don't [inhale excessively]"}.

Even more obscure allusion: Jon Lighter reported on ADS-L 11/1/06 that Fox and Friends had just rebuked Barbra Streisand for using "the firetruck word" in public.  Jon noted that Google has cites back to 1999.  The expression goes back to the Turtle Club question, "What word begins with the letter F and ends with CK?"

Also on ADS-L, Barry Popik (11/9/06) quoted a 1960 Dallas Morning News article about a Texas stew known variously as "son-of-a-blankety-blank stew", "S.O.B. stew", and "Gentleman-from Odessa" or "Gent-from-Odessa stew".  The writer, Frank X. Tolbert, explained that the first two of these names used "an unfriendly term in which  it
is implied that the man receiving the insult has canine ancestry on the distaff side", and cited an informant explaining that the last two derived from the reputation of the town of Odessa:

The town had something of a reputation for hell-raising. People from Sweetwater to El Paso generally agreed that what passed for a gentleman in Odessa would be the equivalent of what was called a son-of-a-blankety-blank in more civilized prairie towns.

3.  Euphemisms and technical vocabulary. 

Note Bierma's report of hell as "[heck]", above.

In a startling development, effing (originally a kind of euphemistic abbreviation) is now regarded in some quarters as intemperate language.  From a 10/26/06 House of Commons debate (pointer from Dery Earnshaw)

Mr. Osborne: If he cannot accept that, surely the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is right: the Chancellor will make an "effing awful" Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Gentleman withdraw that remark? We must have temperate language in this House. I do not care what is said outside.

Mr. Osborne: I of course unreservedly withdraw the quote from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Assorted inventive euphemisms of the freakin' etc. type:

UncleJam89 wants you to funkin' read tonight. (Jon Lighter, ADS-L 2/24/07, from an eBay site)

This is fargin war!  (Scot LaFaive, ADS-L 2/24/07, from the movie Johnny Dangerously)

Technical terminology functions as a substitute in an AP story of 12/13/06 that Eric Jusino pointed me to in the Central Utah Daily Herald

A Washington State University assistant professor who used a vulgar racial term during a heated political dispute with Republican students was "immature" and "thoughtless," but his actions did not constitute discrimination, a new university report concludes.

... During the dispute, [Dan] Ryder said [John] Streamas, an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies, called him a "white (solid waste)-bag."

College Republicans demanded that Streamas be fired. University President V. Lane Rawlins said Streamas would be reprimanded, but not fired.

For the verb, rather than the noun, here's a quote from a This Modern World cartoon by Tom Tomorrow, which I saw in the Funny Times of 2/07; TT is reviewing the events of 2006:

Sept. 24: N.I.E. acknowledges that Iraq war has increased threat of terrorism.

The report also notes that the Pope is Catholic and bears defecate in the woods.

Then in February came the grerat hoohaa episode, in which this nursery word (or one of many variants: hoo-ha, hoo-hoo, ha-ha, etc.) is used to refer to the vagina.  The appearance of "The Hoohaa Monologues" on the marquee of a Florida theater was noted in the NYT :

What's in a Name? Controversy
Published: February 12, 2007                          

Under ordinary circumstances, the opening of "The Hoohaa Monologues" on Thursday at the Atlantic Theaters in Atlantic Beach, Fla., near Jacksonville, would not attract much attention. But "The Hoohaa Monologues" by any other name is Eve Ensler's Obie Award-winning, internationally performed play, "The Vagina Monologues."

Last week, after a complaint from a passing driver who became upset because her niece had seen "vagina" on the theater marquee, Bryce Pfanenstiel of the Atlantic said, "We decided we would just use child slang for it," reported. Down came "The Vagina Monologues." Up went "The Hoohaa Monologues."

But two days later, on Thursday, in response to a demand from the organizers of the production, the original title was restored. The organizers are a group of Florida Coastal School of Law students who insisted that the original title be displayed because they had rights to the play only if they refused any censorship.

"Vagina is the essence of a woman," said an organizer, Elissa Saavedra, "and if you're going to suppress the name, then you're suppressing us as women." All proceeds are to go to charity.

Ben Zimmer was the first to post this on ADS-L, and then other posters reported occurrences of one or another variant on the TV show Ellen; in the movie Boys on the Side; in the Pussycat Dolls' song "Beep"; on South Park; on Grey's Anatomy; and from their own childhoods.  Eventually, people became to report other, non-vaginal, uses: the MAD Magazine interjection (of astonishment or triumph) hoo-hah, and the noun meaning 'fuss, to-do', in particular.

4.  "[expletive]" and related locutions. 

seems to be in fashion these days.  Susan Harrelson wrote me on 10/21/06 to report a competition between asterisking and (automatic) beep:

People posting on the IMDB message boards, even experienced users who know that taboo words will be rendered as "*beep*," may be surprised to discover the following:
F*cking = *beep*
F**king = F**king
I know I was.

But bleep lives on, as in this Variety story of 10/26/06 (passed on by Victor Steinbok) about NBC vs. the Dixie Chicks:

The national spot shows a clip of Bush authorizing troops to fight in Iraq, then cuts to a clip of Maines' comment. Next is a clip of the president saying publicly that the Dixie Chicks shouldn't have their feelings hurt if people don't want to buy their records anymore. The final frame shows Maines saying that Bush is a "real dumb (bleep)."

And then there's the audio bleep, turning up in extraordinary places.  Here's a report from the Telegraph of 1/27/07:

'Bleep' bless you ma'am: censor goes too far
By Catherine Elsworth in Los Angeles
Last Updated: 2:05am GMT 27/01/2007

An over-zealous censor bleeped out all references to God when editing an in-flight version of the Oscar-nominated film The Queen.

The operator had been told to remove all profanities when preparing a version for several commercial airlines.

When one of the characters addresses the Queen, played by Helen Mirren, passengers aboard certain Delta and Air New Zealand flights heard: "(Bleep) bless you, ma'am" rather than "God".

Jeff Klein, president of Jaguar Distribution, which supplied the airlines, said the removal of God in seven instances was a mistake by an employee who had taken his instructions too literally. The films have been replaced with unedited copies.

(From Ben Zimmer; longer story here.  Australian version of the story reported by Matthew Duggan.).

Automated BLEEP insertion (see the discussion of automated asterisking below) has reached new depths.  As Ben Zimmer posted to the ADS-L on 8/11/07:

The sports blog Deadspin has often ridiculed the censorship of user comments on, e.g. (link) (link).

Earlier today there was a post about similar censorship on, where "BLEEP" is inserted in place of offending words: (link)

Referencing censored bits here: (link)

"The San Francisco Giants trade pitchers Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and BLEEP  Bonser to Twins for A.J. Pierzynski." [censoring "Boof" Bonser]

"They were tradinBLEEP oung player who had put up some nice numbers, but wasn't projected to be a star..." [censoring the letters "g a y" in "tradinG A Young player"]

Chris Waigl then discovered that

On the Foxsports page, the "BLEEP"s are hyperlinks which lead to a page entitled "About Censoring": encourages our users to express themselves on their blogs, story comments, or message boards. We don't want to slow down your game when you're dishing on your favorite teams and players.

At the same time, we recognize that not everyone out there loves a potty mouth. So if there's an obvious bad word on a blog, story comment, or message board post, we'll try to censor it.

Feeling brave, mature, and adult-ish? Or just want to get in touch with your inner sailor? You can choose to have FOX Sports do nothing, and leave all those R-rated words alone. If you do, you may see some coarse language from time to time in the community. Don't say we didn't warn you!

*Would you like to automatically censor content you view?*

Below this are two buttons. I clicked "No, don't censor" and now get the unbleeped pages.

Leaving aside the inane rules for censored strings, which are far from catching only "obvious bad words", even if you believe in such a thing, there are two remarkable things about this:

- They unapologetically call it "censorship"
- They offer "censorship" as a customer service feature

An extreme version of the "[expletive]" strategy is just to use empty square brackets, as in these excerpts from the redacted transcript of a taped conversation between Bob Woodward and Richard Armitage, in evidence at the Scooter Libby trial:

WOODWARD: ...What's Scowcroft up to?
ARMITAGE: [       ] Scowcroft is looking into
  the yellowcake thing.

... We've got our documents on it.  We're clean as a
  [         ] whistle. 

There's a lot more, but you get the drift.  (Pointer from Ben Zimmer, 2/13/07.  There's also redacted audio.)

A related usage (total omission) was reported by Scot LaFaive on ADS-L 2/24/07, re "the horse you rode in on":

I did a search of Google Books and Google for antedates but couldn't find any. I did find two interesting notes on the phrase. For one, it seems that the phrase "fuck/screw you and the horse you rode in on" is often clipped to "and the horse you rode in on," allowing for it to be used in proper company.

5.  "The x-word".

Check out Geoff Pullum's wonderful rant of 2/2/07 on the use of "the x-word" (for various values of x) on the NPR Talk of the Nation show.

6.  Asterisks and other avoidance characters.

Chris Waigl wrote about a conspicuous use of piss on television, reported without avoidance in the Guardian News Blog of 8/25/06:

Weather presenter Joanne Malin has hit the headlines for describing conditions in the way the rest of us do when, live on Central TV, she said it was "pissing it down".

but asterisked in the Daily Mirror article that same day:

TV NEWSGIRL Joanne Malin feared a downpour of complaints after accidentally blurting out that it was "p***ing it down" during a weather report.

But rather than a storm of protests, hundreds of viewers emailed to say they had not seen anything so funny for ages.

Chris (e-mail of 8/28/06) observed that the British tabloids (like the Daily Mirror) print

a surprisingly large amount of asterisked taboo words. Many are used gratuitously. Which fits: the asterisks draw even more attention to them, and serve the purpose of titillating the prudish reader. (I once spent 5 min just figuring out that an instance of "b******" stood, most likely, for "bastard". Without the asterisks, the word wouldn't have caught my attention at all.)

Here's an astonishing asterisking from columnist Kathleen Parker on 9/6/06 (hat tip to Victor Steinbok) -- astonishing because it defends the use of strong language while failing to reproduce that language:

The five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has produced a peculiar concern--whether rescuers used proper language in the midst of mind-numbing horror and chaos. Apparently, firefighters were prompted to use profanity, a fact that some Americans now find too offensive for prime time... Usually, I'm in favor of strict enforcement of decency standards... However, there's a clear difference between gratuitous profanity contrived by unimaginative writers and the spontaneous language of real-life horror... Can anyone really imagine seeing what those firefighters saw--first one plane, then another--and saying, 'Goodness gracious, what rare deed is this?' When 'What the ---' more accurately captures the moment?

Another one from Chris Waigl, from a Guardian blog:

Tom may be gloomy, but Bono is a pr@ck. That's the difference.
Posted by Pete23 on October 17, 2006 03:05 PM.

Oh Bono, you stupid prack!

And one passed on by Ben Zimmer (8/22/07), from (8/21), with reference to Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska:

"This will shut that f---er up," [Sen. Tom Coburn's communications director John] Hart stated in an Aug. 1 e-mail sent from his Senate account to several of his colleagues. "I can't wait to send an In Case You Missed It to Nebraska press that will be forwarded to a--face."

Then there's automated asterisking, which I wrote about here in 2006: here, here. here, and here.  On 8/8/07 on ADS-L, Wilson Gray re-discovered the wonders of automatic asterisking on iTunes, citing the tune "El P***ycat".  Joel Shaver followed up (8/11) with an oddity from the Pandora website:

Longtime fans who were mystified by Chris Thile's experimental 2004 solo release Deceiver may c**k their
collective heads in dismay, but those who appreciate the group's searing ,musicianship, orgasmic harmonies, and genre-bending arrangements will no doubt wear out their copies of Why Should the Fire Die? within the first month of ownership.  ( ~ James Christopher Monger, All Music Guide)

Some were dubious that this should be taken seriously, but Chris Waigl pointed to the identical asterisking on (parts of) the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds site that I posted about a while back.

7.  Finally" say it with a look.

Matthew Stuckwisch (10/31/06) passed on some dialogue from the TV show Everybody Hates Chris the week before:

ROCHELLE: Hello Louise, how ya doin'?

LOUISE: Keep your nasty little nappy-headed son away from my grand-daughter.  That's how I'm doing.

CHRIS AS NARRATOR: That look means all seven of the words you can't say on television.  (pause) Because this is a family show, all she can say is this...

ROCHELLE: Excuse me?

The show has often played on the idea of a single expression representing a complex sentence, and even once featured an entire conversation (interpreted by Chris as Narrator) in facial expressionese.

The expression in question is known as "cut-eye".  See, for example, John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford, "Cut-Eye" and "Suck-Teeth": African Words and Gestures in New World Guise (Journal of American Folklore 1976), reprinted in John Rickford's African American Vernacular English (Blackwell, 1999).

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 25, 2007 04:54 PM