On the taboo avoidance patrol

Two recent cases:

In Guirgis’s seventh full-length play, “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” (at the Gerald Schoenfeld), audience members are treated to the author’s customary craftsmanship and themes, … (Hilton Als, “War Games” [review of “The Motherfucker with the Hat”], New Yorker 4/25/11, p. 86)

[Joel Berson to ADS-L 4/22/11 on “This sucks”] Too taboo apparently for the Boston Globe sports section today.  Lawrence Academy has had its football program sanctioned and its consecutive league championships of the past two seasons taken away by the Independent School League.  Neither the league nor the academy has so far specified the violations.  One former player is quoted by the Globe as saying “This absolutely [stinks]”, and the worst part is no one can give us a straight answer.”

I assume, but cannot know, that the deleted word is “sucks”.

The first case is especially interesting, in that the New Yorker doesn’t shrink from fuck-words. Later in the review, there are unasterisked quotes from the play’s dialogue:

Vibrating with coke nerves, Veronica says, “Ma? O.K., look, for the last time, you’re still a good-lookin’ woman with a huge, lovin’ heart and you’re not hard to please – clearly – but you’re dating a fuckin’ big-time loser with a head like an actual fuckin’ fish! . . . O.K., like, please, alls I’m gonna say, Ma, when you see him tonight: Take a moment. Take a breath. Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty, ‘Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika?’ ”

And a reference to the man of the title:

Is it their downstairs neighbor, the motherfucker with the hat?

Apparently, the first, asterisked, version reproduces the title as it appears in publicity for the play (including on the play’s own website; discussion here). After this, the New Yorker continues its plain-speaking ways.

Berson’s Boston Globe report came in a long exchange about the history and current shades of usage of deprecatory intransitive suck (as in This class sucks). The sexual uses of suck (as in Kim sucks cock) are mixed up with the deprecatory use in complex ways, to the extent that some people take the deprecatory use to be as taboo as the sexual uses.

Dictionaries vary in their usage labels on this one. NOAD2 labels suck ‘be very bad, disagreeable, or disgusting’ as merely informal, while AHD4 labels the usage as vulgar slang.

Berson went on to note that the Globe allows some other expressions some might query:

On the other hand, the movie pages in the Globe’s magazine section seem to have a different standard.  Its “Movie Stars” column has a capsule review/listing:

“1/2 Your Highness  Dreadful. … Natalie Portman does her career no favors as a kick-ass lady knight.”

NOAD2 labels kick-ass ‘forceful, vigorous, and aggressive’ as merely informal, though it treats ass ‘buttocks; anus’ as vulgar slang (as does AHD4). The famously modest NYT seems to have no trouble with kick-ass (as in the movie title Kick-Ass), or with the verbal idiom kick ass (as in the book title Think Big and Kick Ass), but I suspect its tolerance for ass expressions doesn’t go much further than that.

So maybe we can appreciate the Globe‘s policy: kick-ass in, deprecatory suck out. Unless you have a general policy of tolerance, you have to draw lines somewhere.

2 Responses to “On the taboo avoidance patrol”

  1. nick Says:

    There was an excellent play in London a year or two ago which was variously billed as either SH*TM*X or SH*T-M*X. The two asterisks each replaced an i – but you only discovered this by watching the play itself!

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From my files, an ass-avoidance dance, from Scott Simon,
    “After A Ballgame, “Nobody’s Perfect” Is Just Perfect” on Weekend Edition Saturday 6/5/10:

    But Jim Joyce looked at video of the play and tearfully told reporters, “I just missed the damn call … I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his butt” — and he didn’t say butt — “off all night.”

    Transcript here.

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