More taboo avoidance in the NYT

The Gray Lady continues to allude to taboo vocabulary indirectly, with a series of strategies reported on in Language Log and this blog. Two recent cases:

In “Wash That Blog Out With Soap” by Penelope Green on the 26th, about Emma Koenig:

… Ms. Koenig, who, like her sisters before her, has been channeling her anomie into a contemporary literary form — in her case, a Tumblr blog. While its title begins with a common vulgar interjection, it is nonetheless a sweetly dark look at a life stage, something resembling the HBO series “Girls,” but defanged a bit.

And in an obituary, “Lupe Ontiveros, Who Portrayed Maids and Moms, Dies at 69”, by Mireya Navarro on the 28th:

With characteristic saltiness, Ms. Ontiveros once said, “I’ve made chicken salad” out of chicken manure. But she did not regret playing so many maids, she said, because it allowed for steady work and for portraying working people with dignity.

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer on the Koenig story.)

In contrast to the NYT‘s approach, which generally avoids asterisking, “the F-word”, “[expletive]”, “[bleep]”, and the like, as well as the taboo words themselves, here’s another tack, posted about on Language Log by Sally Thomason a little while ago:

Yesterday’s Missoulian, reporting on a non-shy mountain lion that was hanging around a campground in western Montana, had the following memorable sentence: ‘The kids were playing and Gerhard was stashing something in the minivan when her cousin hollered, “Holy (appropriate word under the circumstances), that’s a mountain lion!”‘

Sally assumed that the avoided word was shit — the title of her posting wa: “Holy s***! J-school punchy prose?” — but several commenters pointed out that it could have been various other words, and John Lawler asked, “Precisely what are the appropriate words under this circumstance?” Commenter david fried made the comparison to the NYT:

Surely the taboo is on its last legs when the reporter can cock a snook at it in this way, and the editors permit it. When was the last time your family newspaper referred to the word “shit” as “appropriate in the circumstances”? The NY Times would still say something like “common vulgarity denoting excrement.” Now that is prissy.

Now back to Koenig and Ontiveros.

More context on Koenig, from Green’s story:

At 24, Emma Koenig has amassed all the accouterments of her generation: an expensive college degree; a string of low-paying (and no-paying) jobs, including coat-check girl, cashier at a sandwich shop and intern at a production company, the drudgery of which was punctuated by a series of degrading pseudo-romantic encounters; and the lease on an overpriced, undersize apartment in the East Village stuffed with a rotating cast of Craigslist roommates, which she eventually gave up to move back in with her parents. She also has a viral blog, a book out next month and a deal pending with a production company to develop a television series.

In the link to the blog, we learn that its name is “Fuck! I’m in My Twenties”, which is what Green alludes to when she writes that the title “begins with a common vulgar interjection” (note that would be consistent with the word being shit, or possibly something a bit milder). Green goes on to talk about Koenig’s forthcoming book, still avoiding the interjection:

Her book, which goes by the same name as the blog and concludes with the words “I’m in My Twenties,” will be out next month from Chronicle Books, and will be sold at Urban Outfitters, the 20-something’s go-to lifestyle emporium.

Then follows some input from Koenig’s father, Robin Koenig, and mother, Bobby Bass:

The blog’s title caused less discomfort [than her accounts of drinking and sex], though Mr. Koenig said it used a word he did not use much. “Bobby is more comfortable with it,” he said.

“It is a very versatile word,” Ms. Bass said, adding that she and her husband had been warmed up to it by their son, Ezra Koenig, 28. His band, Vampire Weekend, is an indie favorite, and one of its hits, “Oxford Comma,” contains the word in its lyrics.

I’ve posted about Vampire Weekend here; “Oxford Comma” begins “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” (The song is more about giving a fuck than about the Oxford comma.)

In contrast to this dancing around the word fuck, the taboo avoidance in the Ontiveros story is positively subtle. From Navarro’s obit:

With characteristic saltiness, Ms. Ontiveros once said, “I’ve made chicken salad” out of chicken manure.

Now you might think that chicken manure is the salty talk. However, note that the story quotes “I’ve made chicken salad” directly, but has chicken manure outside of quotation marks, conveying only that what’s being reported is the gist, not necessarily the exact words (an avoidance strategy the Times has used on other occasions). And indeed what Ontiveros said, in a Back Stage interview of 9/27/07, was:

Ontiveros: With the [Emmy] nomination for Desperate Housewives, I didn’t win, but everybody says, “Hey, not everybody gets nominated.” [The nomination] is part of my name now. Then I got offered a feature: a maid—and a very limiting maid, but I’ve worked miracles out of nothing. I’ve made chicken salad out of chicken shit.

(Ontiveros’s acting career was limited by her being female, short, and, most significantly, Hispanic. So she played a lot of maids and moms.)

Back in April, I posted an inventory of postings on taboo avoidance (and occasional use) by the Gray Lady. Since then:

BZ in LLog, 4/16/12: The first “asshole” in the Times? (link)

AZBlog, 4/29/12: Annals of French taboo avoidance (link)

AZBlog, 5/7/12: Reporting the profane (link)

AZBlog, 5/9/12: More reporting the profane (link)

AZBlog, 7/8/12: Ask AZ: The F-word and “F-word” (link)

3 Responses to “More taboo avoidance in the NYT”

  1. Taboo initialism avoidance « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] is a step down from the case reported here, where the Times didn’t name the blog at issue (“Fuck, I’m in My […]

  2. Taboo initials (cont.) « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] recent postings on the NYT‘s taboo avoidance strategies: here, with fuck avoided in the blog title Fuck, I’m in My Twenties by a reference to “a […]

  3. The inside-outside strategy « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] strategy is often subtler than that. As I said in talking about the paper’s treatment of a quote from actress Lupe Ontiveros — “With characteristic saltiness, Ms. Ontiveros once said, […]

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