Indecency?

Two recent stories from ADS-L about putatively indecent language: on slut and uterus.

First, as reported by Jon Lighter on July 6:

[July 3] Tot-mom attorney Jose Baez claimed in his closing argument that his client was being defamed as a “lying, no-good slut.”  Later, the Headline News team expressed amazement that producers had not bleeped the word. Jane Velez-Mitchell said she’d sought guidance about whether she could repeat it on the air.

[July 6]  On CNN this morning Kirin Chetry quoted Jose Baez’s use of the word “slut.” She felt, however, that she had to spell it out rather utter it. She apologized for using the word, saying that she was only quoting someone else, and that she took the precaution of spelling rather than saying “just in case any children might be listening.”

(In case you’ve somehow missed the fuss, Tot Mom is the headline name the media have given Casey Anthony, a young Florida woman accused of murdering her two-year-old daughter, leading to an extraordinary medialanche of coverage.)

Lighter commented, mildly:

In my day, though “slut” was obviously insulting (and thus “offensive”), it was not usually thought to be indecent.

(my take on things as well). We might be seeing an increasing reluctance to condone public insults, or even the reporting of them, and to upgrade them from insult to indecency, at least when they have sexual content. What seems to be problematic for some people here is the allusion to sexual matters (allied, in this case, with an insulting choice of vocabulary: slut, rather than, say, loose woman) — so children must be protected from the topic (by protecting them from the word).

That brings us to a case noted by Geoff Nunberg on ADS-L yesterday, in a link to another Florida story (“O Florida, Venereal Soil”, Nunberg quipped), in the St. Petersburg Times of March 11:

Democrat chastised for saying ‘uterus’ on House floor

… At one point [state Rep. Scott] Randolph [D-Orlando] suggested that his wife “incorporate her uterus” to stop Republicans from pushing measures that would restrict abortions. …

Apparently the GOP leadership of the House didn’t like the one-liner.

They told Democrats that Randolph is not to discuss body parts on the House floor.

… “It’s not like I used slang,” said Randolph, who actually got the line from his wife. He said Republicans voiced concern about young pages hearing the word uterus.

“I think it’s a sad commentary about what we think about sex education in the state,” he said.

House GOP spokeswoman Katie Betta: “The Speaker has been clear about his expectations for conduct on the House for during debate. At one point during the debate, he mentioned to the entire House that members of both parties needed to be mindful of decorum during debate.

“Additionally, the Speaker believes it is important for all Members to be mindful of and respectful to visitors and guests, particularly the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates. In the past, if the debate is going to contain language that would be considered inappropriate for children and other guests, the Speaker will make an announcement in advance, asking children and others who may be uncomfortable with the subject matter to leave the floor and gallery.”

Protect the Children again — from the topic: the uterus is unmentionable in public, presumably by any expression whatsoever.

Maybe the medical terminology is part of the problem. For some people, the medical terms for sexual anatomy have become almost as tainted as the corresponding slang expressions, as I reported a while back in a discussion of reptile dysfunction (used by a child):

As for explaining reptile dysfunction to children, that just reduces to the problem of explaining erectile dysfunction (an issue that remains even for children who heard the expression correctly but of course had no idea what it might mean), and there the parental discomfort comes not from the expression, but from its referent. Even parents who have told their kids the story of the man’s putting his penis in the woman’s vagina (in whatever vocabulary they used: some parents treat penis and vagina as as wildly unacceptable as dick and pussy, etc., and resort to childish vocabulary like peepee and yoohoo, or even his thing and her thing) might not have wanted to go on to explain to young children the role of erection in the whole business, much less the fact that achieving and maintaining an erection can be difficult for some men.

There’s a nice further twist to the Florida uterus story, as Nunberg noted. From the St. Petersburg Times in April:

From the Florida House to national media, ‘uterus’ is runaway hit

The utterance of the word “uterus” during floor debate in the Florida House has become a source of strange linguistic controversy.

TALLAHASSEE — A little thing happened in the Florida House two weeks ago. A Democrat from Orlando said “uterus” during a floor debate.

No one much noticed, or cared, until word leaked that Republicans told Democrats they couldn’t say the word.

Now people can’t stop saying it.

Angry with cuts to education? Democrats say uterus.

Don’t like giving Gov. Rick Scott more power? Uterus.

Upset with the way the Legislature is treating unions? Uterus!

The story caught the attention of national media and the legislator, Scott Randolph, made it on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable show.

“Uterus?” It has a Facebook page, Twitter hashtags, and — because it’s politics — pink buttons.

But most importantly, Democrats looking for a unifying theme amid dour legislative prospects have found it in a single, unlikely word.

(The paper is extraordinarily fond of one-sentence paragraphs. They avoid blocks of text by feeding their readers one sentence at a time.)

UTERUS! A chant for our time.

And now, just in from Nunberg:

Add “anal” to the CNN banned list [that includes “slut”]: in playing an audio of the chanting outside a women’s center that got the Yale fraternity DKE in trouble last October (“No Means Yes! Yes Means Anal!”), CNN bleeped out the ‘anal’. Kyra Phillips explained, “You can look online if you want to know the bleeped word.”

However she did quote in its phonetic fullness the text of a poster that appeared at an earlier Yale event: “We love Yale sluts.”

It’s so hard to be consistent.

On the uterine parliamentary front, George Thompson notes on ADS-L that

The manual of parliamentary procedure used by the English Parliament has or had a half page of utterances that had been held to be undecorous, offensive or just plain unparliamentary. If any parliamentarians have said “uterus”, they got away with it. The expressions I recall included “impudent young pup” and “elected by the refuse of a large constituency”.

The compiler of this manual was Erskine May (double last name). Last looked at it no doubt 20 years ago, so maybe some choice things have been added to recent editions.

2 Responses to “Indecency?”

  1. mollymooly Says:

    Any such list of unparliamentary expressions is necessarily incomplete. A word does not get added to the list until the Speaker has ruled it unparliamentary, and the Speaker does not make such a ruling unless and until an MP has used the doubted term. The standing orders specify classes of forbidden expressions (and forbidden speech acts), while the Speaker rules whether a given utterance is within such a class.

    In 2009, in Ireland’s lower house one deputy told another to “fuck off”. His subsequent statement of apology included the hedge that “the terminology I used was not included in the list [of verboten terms]”, whose exculpatory force was undermined by the fact that he had admitted in the offending sentence itself that it was “the most unparliamentary language”.

  2. Portmanthology « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Me in a posting, “Indecency”, on 7/8/11: … leading to an extraordinary medialanche of coverage. […]

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