PROFANITY AT THE NEW YORKER.

I’ve been reading the New Yorker for most of my life; it’s had its ups and downs, but it’s still a great magazine, and the slow infiltration of “bad words” over the years has been a pleasure to see. (Confidential to the New York Times: a publication can cuss and retain its cachet!) Elon Green at The Awl has done a nice rundown of the first appearances of a bunch of terms (it turns out Gabriel García Márquez got both shit and testicle into the still-prissy magazine in 1976 in “The Autumn of the Patriarch”). In the comment thread, Jasmine Moy quotes from her essay “Dispatches From The New Yorker Festival“:

Calvin Trillin brought us, uproariously, on his few early battles with long-time editor William Shawn, for whom he had enormous respect, over language. Trillin isn’t particularly into profanity, as his father had been a proponent of using proper language: “When I was a little boy, I thought ‘for crying out loud’ was the sort of oath that grownups used for particularly dire circumstances.” Shawn’s desired changes often verged on the ridiculous. John Cheever had to edit the sentence, “You’ve just lost a fuck,” to “Shut up Melissa, shut up,” before it would run in The New Yorker. When and article mentioned cats mounting each other Shawn requested a euphemism for mount, something like, “making a sexual advance toward.” “But it’s a cat. We’re talking about a cat here,” said Trillin. Needless to say, “mount” remained. The first time the magazine published a photo of bare breasts a reader wrote to Trillin to complain. Trillin responded, “They were small breasts, in keeping with the understated nature of the magazine.” While writing his U.S. Journal series, he interviewed Lester Maddox, who spoke the phrase, “ram it.” Trillin protested that Shawn was asking Trillin to stop listening when other reporters are still listening, which lead to a showdown over which Trillin was afraid he’d lose his job. “I know what you analytically inclined New Yorkers are thinking: I really did have a burning ambition to get dirty words in The New Yorker, because I was acting out against my father who I deeply resented for sleeping with my mother. In all honesty, when I’m in my own voice, as opposed to quoting somebody, I’ve never use offensive language in the magazine. I’ve always known that my father and Mr. Shawn would disapprove.”

Comments

  1. Off-topic, but I’ve mentioned this phenomenon to you at another time:
    When and article mentioned cats mounting each other Shawn requested a euphemism for mount, something like
    For a long time I’ve been noticing myself changing “an” to “and” before vowels (maybe only “a”), e.g. “and apple”. Here’s someone else doing it.
    An additional weirdness is that it’s a typing error, but it’s phonetic, and I think that I’ve only done it on the internet, which is typed but which is also sort of like oral communication (written orality), the way reading a lecture is sort of like oralized writing.

  2. When I hear the word orality I reach for my speech.

  3. Keep your mind out of the gutter, Croup.

  4. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the OED.

  5. Bathrobe says:

    I cringed when I read this:
    I know what you analytically inclined New Yorkers are thinking: I really did have a burning ambition to get dirty words in The New Yorker, because I was acting out against my father who I deeply resented for sleeping with my mother.
    Even though he was imputing these thoughts to other people, it struck me more forcefully than any profanity.

  6. dearieme says:

    Aw for Christ’s sake: WHOM I deeply resented….

  7. “I’ve never use offensive language in the magazine.”
    It wasn’t edited.
    Has anyone else read Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker piece, from about 1985, Taureau Piscine? – very funny – anyway, he was not making it up.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    Aw for Christ’s sake: WHOM I deeply resented….
    Of course that’s what I was talking about.

  9. There have been tornadoes in Massachusetts today, including one in Springfield–not so far from you, Hat, I believe. You OK?

  10. Yup, we actually spent some time in the basement (with the cats, who trotted down with us happily because they spend their nights there and to them it’s a place of fun and security), the first time I’ve ever done that in response to a tornado watch. Thanks for asking!
    (Whoa, there went a blast of thunder—guess we’re still getting weather.)

  11. Don’t get mixed up with the Wizard of Oz or talk to any witches.

  12. We did not go to the basement (the “tornadic activity” has not come near us), but we did go so far as to put some candles and some water down there, and my wife bagged up some precious family photographs in case the house blew away. It was rather exciting to be driving home from work and having radio broadcasts interrupted by loud beeping buzzing warning announcements from the National Weather Service. I kept looking behind me for a funnel cloud.

  13. I’ve been trying to work out who AJP Cave-Mann’s parents are. Nick Cave is obviously the father, but the only potential mother I can think of is the swimmer Shelley Mann.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    I vaguely recall the controversy over the first photograph of uncovered breasts to appear in the New Yorker. Shouldn’t some enterprising reporter have gotten a reaction quote from the proprietress of the breasts in question as to whether she concurred with Mr. Trillin’s “understated nature” characterization? (I want to say the lady in question was the actress Tilda Swinton, but have not gone back and confirmed that, much less tried to find the pictures in question online . . .)

  15. If that’s the girl in the pictures, AJP, she is obviously much too young to be your mother. Your grandmother, maybe.

  16. xyzzyva says:

    John Cowan,
    I too have noticed “and” for “an” increasingly in writing. Of course, in running speech, both are at most /ən/ for most speakers.
    An [sic] to complete the earlier peeving, I’m surprised nobody pointed out “which lead to a showdown”, and [sic] error in a spelling distinction that requires too much brainpower to keep straight anyway.

  17. Bathrobe says:

    My favourite peeve is the misspelling of ‘lose’ as ‘loose’. “I have too much to loose”. Ugh

  18. My favorite peeve is when people don’t know the difference between John Cowan and John Emerson.

  19. Bathrobe says:

    Touché!

  20. xyzzyva says:

    As one of my good friends would say, /ˈtuːʃ/.

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