The Importance of Profanity.

Jesse Sheidlower has a superb op-ed piece in yesterday’s NY Times taking the US media in general, and the Times in particular, to task for its prudish avoidance of “bad words”:

Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples. [...]

There have been numerous cases in recent years when the use of offensive language has been the news story itself. [...] These stories were covered widely, but in most cases, the details were obscured. The relevant words were described variously as “an obscenity,” “a vulgarity,” “an antigay epithet”; replaced with rhyming substitutions; printed with some letters omitted; and, most absurdly, in The Washington Times (whose editor confessed this was “an attempt at a little humor”), alluded to as “a vulgar euphemism for a rectal aperture.” We learn from these stories that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported. [...]

When language can play such a hot-button role in our society, what we need is more reporting, not less.

I hope the Times takes appropriate action, but I won’t hold my breath.

Somewhat related: Jonathon Green has published an autobiography, Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer; you can read lively reviews by Nicholas Shakespeare in the Telegraph (thanks, Paul!) and by Stan Carey at his blog.

Comments

  1. J. W. Brewer says:

    To the extent that Sheidlower is claiming that the decreased prudishness of the New Yorker’s house style in this regard has coincided with any sort of actual improvement in the quality of the material published in the New Yorker, I respectfully dissent (although I’m not necessarily claiming things would be any better had they retained the older policy with respect to taboo words).

    I would also have said that the traditional justification (being a “family publication”) is probably outmoded insofar as kids today probably on average have approximately zero exposure to old-timey newspapers or suchlike print media, although I have recently noticed that my 12-year-old (without any encouragement from me) has taken to skimming the NY Times online.

  2. Not to mention that kids today, like kids for the past however many decades (certainly throughout my lifetime, maybe forever), have plenty of exposure to curse words on their own and don’t need to learn them from newspapers. The whole thing is absurd hypocrisy.

  3. On this august April first, an apropos link from The Onion.

  4. Under what circumstances does it become “comfortable” to hear, read or repeat offensive language? Should he choose, our subpar Op-Ed Shitblower can leisurely listen to Lenny Bruce ad nauseam in the privacy of his own home. It is not “prudish” for an editor to avoid ugly words. On the other hand, if the New York Times wants to read like a feces-stained public bathroom stall…

  5. So your position is that a newspaper should report the news only if the news does not involve offensive words?

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    This is the New York Times we’re talking about, right? It should report the news only if the news confirms the preexisting worldview of its subscribers. That’s what “fit to print” means.

  7. Not to mention that kids today . . . have plenty of exposure to curse words on their own and don’t need to learn them from newspapers. The whole thing is absurd hypocrisy.

    Yeah, some people are no doubt ‘thinking of the children.’ That’s not the point, or at least not the point I see.

    I like it better when most businesses are closed on Sundays. I like it that cameras aren’t allowed in courtrooms. I like it that people dress up for weddings and funerals. I like it when parliamentarians and similar dignitaries speak in a — wait for it! — dignified manner.

    When essential to the story, news media should publish what was said. When not, fuhgeddaboudit.

  8. Newspapers have long treated uncomfortable or difficult stories without recourse to obscenity or offensive words. In a day and age when discretion is non-existent, blue is increasingly the color of my sweet babies mouth. Where are the elixir-pedaling TV doctor desintoxication specialists? Why isn’t potty-mouth training covered under Obamacare? More surprising is that the Government Office of Legitimate Foul-Mouthedness (GOLF) hasn’t yet shared its 19th hole recommendations with the New York Times.

  9. That’s what “fit to print” means.

    But this being a free country, people with non-conformist views are not forced to read the NYTimes. That means that whatever the Gray Lady prints is read only by people who agree. The only question is what is the agreement.

  10. Paul (T.) says:

    So your position is that a newspaper should report the news only if the news does not involve offensive words?

    I don’t think that is what is meant. Despite the feeling of LH and others about the subject, I believe there are still a lot of people out there who, like me, find it obscenity revealed in full in the press to be very offensive.

    There are perfectly good ways, derided above, in which it can be made clear without being spelled out – even if it is the point of the story. It’s not “think about the children” – though seeing it formally in print will encourage them to think it is completely acceptable to use such language in public. (I strongly deplore 12 year old shouting out obscenities on the bus).

    Just consider that there are a great number of older people (who will now tend to be an increasing majority of print readers) who do find it offensive. Perhaps the let-it-all-hang-out people might think of that ….

  11. des von glanzende-overduidelijkheid says:

    Yebbut, “think of the dwindling audience of the almost dead who are all that’s left of your once-proud business model!” doesn’t have quite the same ring.

  12. This isn’t Culturalwarshat, I know, but I don’t think we are going to have an explosion here, so I’ll say a word or two.

    I like it better when most businesses are closed on Sundays.

    It is, however, quite hard on people who observe a different day of rest, or no such day at all. My grandson’s father gets Tuesdays and Wednesdays off, and the place he helps protect remains secure at all times.

    I like it that cameras aren’t allowed in courtrooms.

    The evidence runs both ways, and the debate is ongoing.

    I like it that people dress up for weddings and funerals.

    At my own wedding, which was the best day of my life, the issue was to discourage people from dressing up too much: it happened to be on October 31. (Makes it easy to remember my anniversary.) Most people were in fact casually dressed. Why not? They were our friends (my father and surviving aunt were there, but no members of Gale’s family). We ourselves got a little fancy in decidedly non-traditional ways, with matching green and gold outfits.

    My family doesn’t do funerals. At my mother’s memorial, a tree was planted in her honor by the university from which she had retired, and people talked around the tree. My father’s was rather larger and was held in an auditorium: people stood up and spoke about him, Quaker-meeting style. They were public people and I am not, so I expect whoever survives me will have a word to say when my ashes are buried, scattered, or whatever seems most convenient, and that’s about it. All things recycle, and we live on in others’ memories.

    I like it when parliamentarians and similar dignitaries speak in a — wait for it! — dignified manner.

    Oh please. I remember watching Nixon’s speeches on TV as a kid. My mother thought I should know what kind of man my country had as President. His dignity didn’t impress me, though I was not yet up to appreciating his full mendacity.

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    If you don’t think funerals are important, it seems like you oughtn’t have strong opinions one way or another on how people dress for them. If you think the New York Times is important, you are more likely to have strong opinions on various quirks of its house style. (I personally think the importance of the NYT is in long-term and possibly irreversible decline, such that what it does and doesn’t do is of continually decreasing significance for the world at large.)

    It is nonetheless probably better for the society as a whole if different publications adopt different stances on issues like this where not all readers’ preferences will be uniform, so people can sort themselves accordingly. (Just as part of the NYT’s historic branding effort involved marking itself as More Serious than its rivals by declining to run e.g. comic strips or horoscopes.) The key is not to get so cocooned that you lose sight of the characteristic weaknesses as well as strengths of your own preferred/default publications, so you have a sense of what sort of story is the sort they will tend to cover inadequately such that you ought to more actively seek out coverage elsewhere if it’s something you want to be informed about.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    Cameras are currently allowed in some courtrooms in the U.S. but not others, so for better or worse we are actively running the experiment although there are lots of confounding variables. (For example, perhaps those jurisdictions that were open to the prospect of televised court proceedings were those where such proceedings were already less dignified than median, for example – which would give rise to a causation-v-correlation problem even if you were confident that those proceedings that are televised seem unusually undignified.)

    I don’t think I’ve ever appeared in court with television cameras present, but I have practiced in jurisdictions where (and this may now be nigh-universal) pre-trial deposition testimony is sometimes videotaped and sometimes not and the presence/absence of the camera definitely changes the dynamics of the event and how you prepare for it — one could argue about whether those changes are on balance good or bad, but it’s a pretty powerful demonstration that adding the camera is not a neutral event and that (your cliched and probably inaccurate quantum physics analogy goes here) adding a new type of observer changes the nature of the behavior being observed.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    stores open on Sundays

    I remember French people repatriated from Algeria after independence who fondly remembered the convenience of shopping days there: Muslim shops closed on Fridays, Jewish ones on Saturdays, and Christian ones on Sundays, so you could always shop for what you needed any day of the week.

    Most of my life I was in places where stores were closed on Sundays, but nowadays most stores, especially large ones, are open at least part of that day. Nevertheless, my ingrained habits are such that it rarely even occurs to me to go shopping on Sundays, except perhaps to get some groceries that I forgot to buy on another day. I remember a road trip some friends and I took from Vancouver (BC) to Los Angeles one winter in the late 60′s. We arrived in LA on Christmas Day, and were very surprised to find the grocery stores just as busy as on any Saturday. At that time, all stores in Canada were closed on Sundays as well as on any other (mostly Christian) legal holidays. I was shocked to find that store employees in LA had to work even on what is traditionally the most important family holiday for the majority of citizens.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    “I have recently noticed that my 12-year-old (without any encouragement from me) has taken to skimming the NY Times online.”

    My children have been seen reading the (physical, actual paper) Daily Telegraph. I tell them it’s not suitable at their age and they’ll go blind.

  17. If you don’t think funerals are important

    Not so much that, they just haven’t been part of my life. The last traditional funeral I remember going to, around age eight, featured the rather ghoulish green and white corpse of my Uncle Joe (who I barely knew anyway) lying in a box. Since then our family has left bodies to specialists and memorials to friends who wanted to stage them, more for themselves than for us.

  18. Businesses closed on Sundays. Courtrooms without cameras. Dressing up for weddings and funerals. Parliamentarians speaking in a dignified manner.

    I know the arguments for businesses staying open on Sundays, and I happen to live in a country in which businesses are largely closed on Saturday but are open the following day. I hadn’t considered that the presence of a camera in the courtroom might influence proceedings, though that it appears to so do is an argument against it. Dressing up is not only for weddings and funerals, and dignified speech is not only for parliamentarians.

    The common denominator is separation from the everyday. It’s like a moving to a higher register in speech or text — something that this blog’s participants surely not only recognize but also enjoy. I know how to cuss real good in two languages, can get by in a third, and can really enjoy letting it rip. That doesn’t mean I do it anywhere, anytime. And it also doesn’t mean that I want to hear or read it anywhere, anytime either.

  19. Paul T. says:

    Des von Sneeker Nieuwsblad: Print’s resisting in some places. The Daily Mail has an average circulation of 1.8 m, while having the most successful newspaper website in the world. Of course papers are closing all over. But local papers still do well because people want to see their photo from the school prizegiving in print …

  20. Just consider that there are a great number of older people (who will now tend to be an increasing majority of print readers) who do find it offensive. Perhaps the let-it-all-hang-out people might think of that

    For the record, and speaking as an older person, and this may be the first time I’ve ever written that, I don’t give a fuck.

    It’s paradoxical that the more we make public use of supposedly offensive language the less offensive it becomes. I can still remember in bygone days the trouble I’d have finding words like “bastard” or “bugger” in The Times, no matter how long I scrutinised the pages. Nowadays it’s behind a paywall but I understand that Murdoch allows buggers on every other page as well as “fuck”, “shit” and even (God forbid) “God”.

    It’s true that reading the Daily Telegraph before your fiftieth birthday can cause blindness, and that eating the Daily Mail will turn your genitals blue.

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Offensive words come and go, and their impact changes. It is important to know this when reading older literature. When I was teaching introductory linguistics, one of my textbooks had an exercise listing about two dozen words taken from a slang dictionary of the late 19C. The point of the exercise was to compare those words with current slang and determine what types of change (if any) had occurred: some words had been lost, others had changed their meaning, yet others had become ‘better’ or ‘worse’ in terms of acceptability, etc. One example that I remember was bitch, which had been the worst possible word you could use for a woman, “even more provoking than that of whore“.

  22. The Daily Mail has an average circulation of 1.8 m, while having the most successful newspaper website in the world.

    If you call that a newspaper.

  23. “Successful” in the sense of lots of clicks. That’s because its home page has a very long column down the right-hand side that shows tits & bums of the rich and famous. I slightly know several female journalists who find this mortifying. They freelance for the Mail because it’s the best-paying British paper, by a long way.

  24. The Mail does have some excellent photographs, though. For instance here’s a collection from yesterday’s opening day at Aintree racecourse.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Not to mention that kids today, like kids for the past however many decades (certainly throughout my lifetime, maybe forever), have plenty of exposure to curse words on their own and don’t need to learn them from newspapers. The whole thing is absurd hypocrisy.

    In some cases there’s even linguistic evidence for this: the word for “evil person” in Austrian dialects has not one but two phonetic irregularities that I can only explain by rather little children learning it from each other for generations without noticing its etymology from “arse” + “hole” (until several years later when the pronunciation is ingrained).

  26. jamessal says:

    “Successful” in the sense of lots of clicks.

    Here’s a humorous, semi-informative Guardian piece about culling those clicks, with an example of how a similar New York Times headline might be written and, of course, a link to “Twilight Star Krtisten Stewart Pens Worst Poem Ever Written!”

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