THE T*MES.

Benjamin Zimmer at Language Log reports on the absurd censorship of profanity at the august and prim NY Times. When it gets to the point that you’re calling movies “****” and bands “********,” you really need to rethink your policies.

Comments

  1. Easy to laugh at the paper; but of course we should point the finger of responsibility for such nonsense at this lousy tempora and its fucked-up mores.

  2. Really? Choosing between the tyranny of editors and the tyranny of vulgarities and insipidities, I am really tempted to choose the former. As for the inconsistencies in the practical applications of the Times’ policy, everybody’s free to develop any double standards they like. After all, a profanity uttered by a state official tells us more about this official than a name of a punk band tells about the music they play.
    PS: I just recalled a funny fake press-release from a book about The Beatles I read many years ago: “In order to comply with the public standards, the band White Trash decided to change the name to White F***.” :)
    PPS: Yep, the asterisk are mine.

  3. I live on a small island where most of the other foreigners are Australians.
    Almost all of them use f**k, in conjunction with ‘me!’ or ‘-ing’, not as a vulgar epithet, but simply as a means of disguising a missing adjective, expressing amazement, or whatever you real linguists call meaningless words added in to improve the speech rhythm.
    When I’m transcribing their conversations, I use the quite meaningless neologism ‘fark’.
    The BBC uses ‘bonk’, but this, while ridiculous to hear, is not quite so meaningless. In fact, it is a very explicit term meaning a very casual and careless act of sexual intercourse, by a male, usually drunk, or p****d, at the time.
    All of this reminds me very strongly of the beating my father gave me when I used a forbidden word in reciting:
    This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
    No bloody trains, no bloody bus
    And no one thinks of bloody us
    In bloody Orkney.
    The bloody folk are bloody mad
    The bloody roads are bloody bad
    Good night the bright is bloody sad
    In bloody Orkney….
    http://sniff.numachi.com/~rickheit/dtrad/pages/tiBLDYORK.html
    But, on maturity, I realise he probably wrote the bloody thing his bloody self after a spell in the bloody place during the bloody War (II).
    best regards
    Richard Parker
    Siargao Island, The Philippines.

  4. Wrong again – I find that ‘Bloody Orkney’ was written by a Capt. Hamish Blair, RN.
    Mind you, B***r wasn’t such a rude word then.
    regards
    Richard

  5. Tomasz Kamusella says:

    The change of vulgar words into non-vulgar ones and vice versa seems to be a constant process, much in line with the unceasing changeability of language itself. Here, I can quote the example of the Polish verb ‘jebać’ (to fuck), which is also a popular profanity in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian.
    Recently, on the basis of this root the adjective ‘zajebisty’ came into use, meaning ‘cool.’ It is just another word for the Polish youth, though the older generations still consider it highly offensive, as related to such ‘jebać’-based profanities as ‘zajebać’ (to kill) or ‘pojebany’ (fucked-up).

  6. Tomasz,
    which is also a popular profanity in Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian
    ..and Czech and Slovak and Serbian and Croatian and Slovenian – all Slavic languages. And it can be found in Sanskrit, too.
    Re “zajebisty”: are you saying that the word has lost its offensiveness, at least among the younger generation? That would be interesting.
    It reminds me of the Slovak word “jebák” = “zit, acne” which is also derived from the same root. While all other derivations of the verb “jebať” are strongly taboo and have no place on public airwaves, “jebák” seems to have found general acceptance not only in the media.

  7. But aren’t all bands since the Beatles ********?

  8. I agree with Tomasz that the issue is words changing from non-vulgar to vulgar and back. I laugh at the Times not just because of their tortuous taboo avoidance, but because they avoid words I don’t consider taboo. There are indeed words I don’t want to read over my eggs and toast, but you half expect the Times to bleep out ‘bloody’ and ‘oh my god’ as well as the really bad ones (which I’m avoiding mentioning).

  9. “Meaningless words added in to improve the speech rhythm” are called “phatic” by linguists.
    And “a profanity uttered by a state official” does not “tell us more about this official than a name of a punk band tells about the music they play.” Most people curse, but only bands that play rock, punk, heavy metal, or rap would use curses in their titles.

  10. “Meaningless words added in to improve the speech rhythm” are called “phatic” by linguists.
    And “a profanity uttered by a state official” does not “tell us more about this official than a name of a punk band tells about the music they play.” Most people curse, but only bands that play rock, punk, heavy metal, or rap would use curses in their titles.

  11. “Meaningless words added in to improve the speech rhythm” are called “phatic” by linguists.
    Thanks for that – not only does it look better on the page, but it sounds almost as good
    regards
    Richard

  12. Jeremy: shouldn’t that be ‘these lousy tempora’?

  13. I don’t think that “phatic” is exactly the right term. That usually applies to words or phrases which have a social rather than informative function. This includes many speech acts where the content of the expression is irrelevant or even contradictory. Greetings are phatic, often asking questions that should not normally be answered in a literal fashion.
    Grimes had a term for particles that seem to be meaningless. He called them “pesky little particles” IIRC. That’s not quite as academic a name, though.

  14. No, I guess you’re right. I was imagining all those Australian fuck-me’s as somehow parallel to “You know what I’m sayin’?” or even “you feel me?” — expressions I’ve always considered phatic (maybe wrongly) for clearly being social rather than literal. I don’t think phatic is restricted to greetings. But either way, in this case “pesky little particles” seems much more better.

  15. Tomasz Kamusella says:

    Dear Bulbul,
    Thank you for the info on the Slovak word “jebák” = “zit, acne”, which gained popular currency, and isn’t considered a profanity. By the way, its Polish counterpart is ‘syfek,’ which is a diminutive derived from ‘syf.’ ‘Syf,’ meaning ‘terrible mess’ or an ‘utterly bad situation,’ is a kind of half-profanity, still avoided in speech and writing. Ultimately, it stems from ‘syfilis’ (syphilis).

  16. Conrad: should it be? I was fretting about whether “tempora” was singular or plural (since I don’t really know Latin beyond a couple of phrases) but couldn’t be bothered to look it up. I went by analogy to “mores” which I’m pretty sure is singular, figuring the construction would be parallel.

  17. Tempora is the plural of tempus (a neuter s-stem: tempus, temporis was originally tempos, tempos-is).

  18. michael farris says:

    “the adjective ‘zajebisty’ came into use, meaning ‘cool.’ It is just another word for the Polish youth, though the older generations still consider it highly offensive”
    I’m not convinced it’s ‘just another word’, I have the idea that the offense it causes is/was definitely part of its allure. And is it that common anymore? I don’t seem to hear it much anymore (I’ve been afraid to ask what’s taken its place).
    Also, to my (non-native) sensibilities, pojebany sounds less offensive than zajebiście. But I could easily be wrong there.

  19. michael farris says:

    “the adjective ‘zajebisty’ came into use, meaning ‘cool.’ It is just another word for the Polish youth, though the older generations still consider it highly offensive”
    I’m not convinced it’s ‘just another word’, I have the idea that the offense it causes is/was definitely part of its allure. And is it that common anymore? I don’t seem to hear it much anymore (I’ve been afraid to ask what’s taken its place).
    Also, to my (non-native) sensibilities, pojebany sounds less offensive than zajebiście. But I could easily be wrong there.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    And mores is plural, too (of mos).
    Concerning Polish expressions of (usually unpleasant) surprise, I’ve only heard o kurwaaaa* and o Jesu. But then I was in Poland for only two weeks.
    * An interesting parallel to the French expression of (often pleasant) surprise: ô putain op’tain op’tain op’tain op’tain (etc. etc. etc., often with the apostrophe pronounced as [ç]).

  21. ‘zajebać’ (to kill)
    That’s not quite what it means — not in Russian, anyway.
    Rather, “to bore/tire/sicken/bother to death”.

  22. I’m with The Times, inconsistency or not. I’m from a generation, upbringing, journalistic training and temperament that finds obscene words, well, obscene, in public discourse, or in private in front of children or ladies.
    I’m delighted to be an old fogey in this respect – this isn’t being prudish – I’m far from that – but a (probably vain) attempt to promote what I believe are civilized standards.
    And I think those using such words in public are 99% likely to be seeking the childish ( e.g. “F*** you” t-shirts) or marketing shock value – which I believe these words still have for a lot of people.
    For instance, the clothes chain French Connection in Britain uses FCUK as its brand, and that offends many people.
    And another thing …..rant, rant…

  23. and mores is plural too
    Sigh… thanks for the Latin help! I should look it up next time I have a clever idea.

  24. Another Old Fogey says:

    Consistency would be just not to discuss a band called ********.
    The problem is the old gray lady krumping, which is just as embarrassing as it sounds.

  25. ‘zajebać’ (to kill)
    That’s not quite what it means — not in Russian, anyway.

    It does in Slovak, Czech and definitely in Polish.
    In dialectal Slovak, it can also mean “to say something stupid or outrageous”.

  26. michael farris says:

    zajebać can also mean, ‘hit, strike’ or ‘steal’ or ‘overdose (on drugs)’ My first association for some reason was ‘steal’, as in:
    on mi zajebał komórkę (roughly: he fucking stole my cellphone)

  27. John E Thelin says:

    I’m a litte dismayed to see so many people defending The NYT’s medieval and superstitious stance, but then again, I come from a country that long since decided that taboo words only gain power when censored, hidden and obscured (that would be Sweden). As a result, we have no words with the mythic power of “fuck” and so offensiveness is generally judged on content and intent, not on single words – which is what I would call the civilized approach.
    The big problem with absurd astericization is that it places the onus of knowing the “bad” word on the reader, making the writer/publication disingenously innocent of any wrong-doing.
    So it’s both self-serving and counter-productive and also a distinctly pre-Enlightenment attitude.

  28. on mi zajebał komórkę (roughly: he fucking stole my cellphone)
    That would be “Ujebal mi mobil” where I come from.
    Slavic verbal prefixation, you gotta love it :)

  29. Tomasz Kamusella says:

    Indeed, ‘on mi zajebał komórkę,’ means in Polish ‘he stole my cell phone.’ Various words formed from the verb ‘jebać’ by the way of prefixation, deepending on communication context, function as intensifying dummies for other (polite) words.
    Interestingly, after having pointed to the fact that at least the form ‘zajebisty’ may be becoming de-vulgarized now, I looked into J. S. Bandtkie’s ‘Słownik dokładny języka polskiego i niemieckiego do podoręcznego używania dla Polaków i Niemców’ (An Exact Dictionary of the Polish Language for the Use of Poles and Germans, 2 vols, Breslau, Prussia 1806). Bandtkie noted the word ‘jebka’ (today non-vulgar Slovak for ‘zit,’ or vulgar Polish for ‘one who fucks senselessly around’) as non-offensive for a ‘virile man.’ His descriptive definition is ‘tęgi do kobiety’ (being able to possess a woman [easily, many times over]).

  30. Tomasz Kamusella says:

    The scanned version of Bandtkie’s dictionary is available at: http://www.pbi.edu.pl/book_reader.php?p=32390&s=1.

  31. John Thelin, I think putting the onus of understanding on the reader isn’t such a bad thing; not to do so could be considered paternalistic. I’m with the Times on this one, for kitsch value alone. If you really enjoy cursing, it’s not like it’s hard to find.
    I blogged this tempest in a teacup at http://errata.wordie.org.

  32. Once, in college, my friends and I went to see Bill Keller and Orville Schell speak, and on the way back we started to talk about what would actually make them yell, “Stop the presses!” like they do in the movies. We decided they’d probably stop the presses if the flag said, “THE NEW FUCK TIMES.” I know that this is stupid, but at the time it seemed hilarious.

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