Quoting modestly

Thomas L. Friedman in his op-ed piece on Steve Jobs (October 9th) reports the satirical newspaper The Onion as having characterized Jobs as

the only American in the country who had any clue what he was doing

That’s not quite what The Onion said, which was:

the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing

This under the headline

Last American Who Knew What The Fuck He Was Doing Dies

The modest Times does not of course quote the head, and circumvents the fuck in the text by careful punctuation.

The beginning of The Onion‘s story:

CUPERTINO, CA—Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on,” a statement from President Barack Obama read in part …

Friedman’s column gives only the first sentence — thus averting the later shit and hell from the mock Obama — and sidesteps the fuck in the first sentence by treating the NP in which it occurs as an interpolated paraphrase rather than a part of the actual quotation:

It began by saying: “Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers” — and the only American in the country who had any clue what he was doing — “died Wednesday at the age of 56.”

The interpolation not in quotation marks is in fact an exact quotation from The Onion, except for the elided the fuck. This scheme of punctuation allows the Times to conceal the editing process; not only does the Times do its best to avoid taboo vocabulary, it frowns on devices (like “[expletive deleted]” and ellipsis periods) that call attention to taboo avoidance.

Of course, The Onion‘s humor loses a lot of its punch in the process.

 

7 Responses to “Quoting modestly”

  1. phidauex Says:

    In this case, the out-of-place expletives are exactly what makes the article funny. The incongruity of seeing all those “fucks” in an otherwise fluffy obit-piece is where all the humor stems. Without them, it just sounds like every other celebrity obituary.

    They were right though, he did know what the fuck he was doing. :’-(

  2. Jan Freeman Says:

    “Where all the humor stems”? Interesting, Phideauex — I couldn’t say that without making it “stems from.” How about you, AZ?

  3. phidauex Says:

    Gosh-dern it, ya cain’t never comment at these languist blags anymore!

    Where from dost thou find the humor issuing forth?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      No one’s recommending P fronting (“from where all the humor stems”) or the near-obsolete wherefrom; stranded P — “where all the humor stems from” — is what Jan and I had in mind. (And certainly no one is recommending archaic verb forms or hyper-formal word choice.)

      Maybe P absorption is natural for you in this case. That wouldn’t be uncommon, but I don’t think it counts as standard yet.

      • phidauex Says:

        Well, I’ve certainly never claimed to be a vanguard for “the standard”. 😉

        “From where all the humor stems” sounds forced, to me. I do see how the sentence doesn’t quite work as I wrote it. The simplified version, “The incongruity … is where all the humor stems.” exaggerates the problem. It doesn’t sound right, but adding “from” on the end doesn’t sound right either. Are there other words that work without the P? Originates? Issues? Arrives?

  4. Where the humor stems « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a comment on my “Quoting modestly” posting, “phidauex” wrote: The incongruity of seeing all those “fucks” in an otherwise […]

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