The NYT goes at it slantwise

Over on Language Log, we’ve remarked repeatedly on the lengths the New York Times will go to to avoid certain taboo vocabulary and also to avoid standard avoidance schemes (asterisking, “[expletive]”, “the F-word”, replacement euphemisms in square brackets, etc.), which the Times seems to believe call too much attention to those nasty expressions. Instead, the paper opts for more indirect (often rather coy) methods of avoidance. I’ve recently gotten reports of two instances of going at things slantwise.

First, Ben Zimmer wrote with this wonderful avoidance in the obituary for the classicist Kenneth Dover:

In it [his memoir, Marginal Comment], Mr. Dover abandoned traditional British restraint in discussing, among much else, his sexual exploits with his wife, Lady Audrey Dover. Nor did he stint, as The Times of London said in its review of the book, in his use of “the Anglo-Saxon tetragram” to recount the proceedings.

That’s the Anglo-Saxon, rather than the Hebrew, tetragram. (Holy fuck, Batman!)

And Jesse Sheidlower found this baffling piece of avoidance, referring to the 70s girl band The Runaways:

Creem magazine infamously dismissed them with three unprintable words.

Jesse went to some trouble — there was no link in the Times — to discover that what Creem said was “These bitches suck.” The insult term bitch makes it onto some people’s list of tabooed items; about this deprecating use of suck (roughly, deprecatory ‘stink’) there is some disagreement as to whether it’s really a taboo word, or just rude; and, as for these, it’s unimpeachable. No way Jesse could get three unprintable words out of “these bitches suck”, nor can I. Maybe these was contaminated by its companions bitches and suck; that’s what happens when you hang out in bad company.

6 Responses to “The NYT goes at it slantwise”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    It’s “three unprintable words” in the same way that “I love you” is “three beautiful words”. The “unprintable” is not distributive. It could be “unprintable three words”, but the usual ordering of adjective classes in English discourages this.

  2. rhhardin Says:

    Unprintable is a euphemism itself.

  3. irrationalpoint Says:

    My father, who is strongly anti-swearing, once mentioned in a conversation on censorship that Lady Chatterley’s Lover contained “the efficacious word”. I thought I’d heard all the euphemisms…


  4. Danny Bloom Says:

    I read that Runaways story in the Times over here in Taiwan via the paper’s weekly international edition, and I read that line and figured it was really bad language, but “these bitches suck” is hardly three unprintable words, good catch. But one thing: suck here, while of course we take it to mean “stink” and sing badly, actually comes from suck cock, and it’s a pretty strong word that has been prettified by common use. You sucker, for example, really comes from “You cocksucker!” Ouch!

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    In response to the comment from Danny Bloom, who confidently asserts that suck ‘stink’ is derived from suck cock (and that sucker ‘simpleton, greenhorn, someone who is easily duped’ is derived from cocksucker).

    The second of these connections is massively unlikely. The first is “common folk knowledge” (it just seems so obvious to lots of people), but there’s scholarly literature casting serious doubt on the derivation. In any case, just because the derivation seems obvious to many people doesn’t mean it’s right. (I’m not denying that some people object to suck ‘stink’ because it sounds dirty, and because, like stink in the relevant sense, it’s crude slang.)

  6. Amy Einsohn Says:

    A new one, from a Times article on Elena Kagan’s e-mail. The last two paragraphs of the piece read:

    Her writing could be earthy, with at least three messages using variations on the two most common swear words.

    In one, she responded to a message with a single word, weaving one of them into “unbelievable.” In another, she said her staff should not take on empty tasks. “You should go,” she said, “but don’t volunteer us for the” scutwork — though she substituted an epithet for the first part of that last word.

    Would that single word have been “un-m-f-ing-believable” or just “un-f-ing-believable”?

    [Source: “Kagan’s E-Mail at Clinton White House Reveals a Blunt, Savvy Legal Adviser,” by Adam Liptak and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, NY Times, June 19, 2010]

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