The Gray Lady avoids

Just out on Language Log: a piece (“Larkin v. the Gray Lady”) by Mark Liberman on taboo avoidance in the New York Times, specifically on Michio Kakutani quoting Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” as beginning:

They mess you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But what Larkin actually wrote (about 40 years ago) began

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

So the NYT has daintily avoided the offensive word — and also eliminated much of the effect of the line.

Mark concludes his posting with an inventory of LLog postings on taboo avoidance in the Times; below, I’ll expand on this some.

But, first, a note on Larkin’s first line. It’s intended to be shockingly colloquial, and also to be a play on words, with fuck up meant both literally — your parents cause you to be by fucking — and idiomatically — your parents mess you up. The poem eventually develops the second sense, but the NYT version loses the first sense completely.

On to the inventory (which looks specifically at taboo avoidance; the Times is also wary of slurs, but that’s a topic for another posting). Mark’s list:

[Expletive discussed]“, 7/1/05
No fuckin’ winking at the Times“, 8/17/05
Words that can’t be printed in the NYT“, 6/5/06
Further annals of taboo avoidance“, 10/4/06
The NYT transgresses“, 8/23/07
Music Review: ********“, 11/13/07
Times bowdlerizes column on Times bowdlerization“, 7/12/08
Annals of Bowdlerization: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot“, 12/6/09
The language of ‘Mad Men’ and the perils of self-expurgation“, 7/22/10
Annals of [having sex] [feces]“, 8/7/10

To which I add:

Another bullshit night in suck city“, 3/19/05
Mock modesty at the NYT“, 6/7/06

And on this blog (rather than LLog):

Taboo avoidance twice removed“, 5/22/09
Avoiding the gubernatorial taboo word“, 11/1/09
Annals of salty terms“, 12/13/09
Data points: taboo avoidance, abbreviation“, 7/31/10
Musical f-bombs“, 3/15/11
Our pesky artists“, 4/12/11
Quoting modestly“, 10/11/11
Annals of taboo avoidance“, 10/22/11
“or words to that effect”“, 1/10/12
The tone but not the words“, 3/27/12
More tone without the words“, 4/1/12

4 Responses to “The Gray Lady avoids”

  1. Ellen Evans Says:

    Actually, as I remember the quote, it was more like
    ‘they mess you up, “your mum and dad, etc.”, that is, she didn’t start the actual quote until after the offending moment. I was struck by that at the time.

  2. Reporting the profane « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] principles. There’s a constant tension, not always easily resolved; see the postings listed here. Mostly, the paper dodges the issue completely; alludes to characterizations like [...]

  3. Taboo initials (cont.) « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    [...] profanity avoidance and also pointing to Arnold Zwicky’s hilarious chronicles of all that which “The Gray Lady avoids.” [thank you, [...]

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