September 17, 2006

The sexy British press

I've been travelling in Europe sans laptop, and thus not having opportunities to blog. But here before me is a machine with a primitive word processor and dialup connection capabilities, so let me just briefly observe that a stop in England (where I am right now) reminded me, as has happened on previous visits, that there is a new linguistic contrast between the UK and the USA, and it's a slightly surprising one. The British have newspapers that are dramatically more sexy and coarse-languaged than anything that could be imagined for a daily news source in the USA.

Two examples from copies of The Independent that I saw in my first couple of days here:

  • a reference (September 6) to how a wine critic once, "notoriously" (meaning this has been much quoted already), described a certain wine as "long and full in the mouth, like a penis."

  • a column by Catherine Townsend called "Sleeping Around" (and yes, it is devoted entirely to the sexual life and underwear of the bylined writer) in which she says (September 7): "I'm really looking forward to a date with someone who will hopefully stimulate my cerebrum as well as my clitoris."

It is not unknown for American newspapers to mention appendages with sexual pleasure as their most salient use; but I think it would be hard to find an American daily (as opposed to a free weekly alternative paper) talking casually in the features pages about oral stimulation thereof. This is surprising given the general background of the culture in Britain, which used to have an official acting for the Crown (the Lord Chamberlain) censoring theater productions, and has never permitted hard-core porn in cinemas (Linda Lovelace visited England to promote Deep Throat in the 1970s, but it was never legally shown to the public in the UK, and still isn't), and so on. Against this backdrop it seems slightly incongruous that now you can openly talk about cocksucking in the food section of a family newspaper in Britain when across the USA you cannot even print the word c*** unless it is firmly au vin.

Grammatical P.S.: I did notice the placement of hopefully in the second quote, so don't write to me about it. Remarkably inept. The old controversy about hopefully concerned whether it should be used as a speech act-related adjunct (meaning "it is to be hoped") at all. That debate was over long ago. It now has that use in addition to functioning as a manner adjunct (meaning "in a hopeful manner"). There is nothing wrong with either use. But to disambiguate the two, it is standard to put the adverb inside the verb phrase when it's a manner adjunct and outside (e.g., before the auxiliary, or at the front of the clause) when it's speech act-related. That may not be quite obligatory, but it's a very straightforward way of disambiguating the new ambiguity. So had Ms Townsend turned to me for syntactic advice, I would have recommended someone who hopefully will stimulate my cerebrum as well as my clitoris, rather than what appeared in the newspaper. Assuming, of course, that there isn't any such thing as hopeful clitoral stimulation. Which I suppose, now that I come to think about it, there just might be... We should probably get off this topic, with its mouthwatering possibilities for double entendres, before I get dug in any deeper...

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 17, 2006 10:58 AM