Annals of salty terms

Christopher Buckley in an op-ed piece (“Catch-2009”, an appreciation of Joseph Heller on the 10th anniversary of his death) in the New York Times on December 12:

… behind the warm smile, he had a switchblade-sharp mind, and his fraud-detector (what Hemingway called, in somewhat saltier terms, the writer’s most indispensable tool) was as fine-tuned as a Predator drone. He could spot phoniness at a thousand yards and destroy it with a single Hellfire-missile glance.

Hemingway’s advice to writers was apparently “Develop a built-in bullshit detector”, but the Times has an aversion to printing the word bullshit — I posted on Language Log some time ago about their attempts to cope with Harry Frank’s book On Bullshit and Nick Flynn’s book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City — as well as other instances of shit, though on occasion they’ve let such things pass in quotations.

The Times prefers not to use avoidance characters, euphemisms, or ostentatious avoidance devices like “[expletive deleted]”, so writers for the paper are inclined to fall back on a paraphrase (like “fraud-detector”) plus a flag that the material alluded to involves a taboo item or a slur (as with “in somewhat saltier terms”).

A search on {“bullshit detector”} pulls up a bunch of references to Hemingway, plus some other entertaining material, like a reference to Bullshit Detector recordings by the punk band Crass (who got the expression from a Clash song, and the Clash got it from Hemingway) and assorted gadgets with that name.

2 Responses to “Annals of salty terms”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    I think this instance is a fail by Buckley. On first reading, I assumed Hemingway’s saltier version of “fraud-detector” was “the writer’s most indispensable tool”; on second reading, I assumed Hemingway had a saltier version of “the writer’s most indispensable tool”.

  2. Vance Says:

    They wanted to say that Hemingway called the detector by a stronger name, and that he called it the writer’s most indispensible tool — but they unintentionally conflated the two acts of calling.

    What got my attention, though, was a different unintentional implication — that bullshit is salty — which brought distasteful images to mind.

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