On the taboo/slur watch

Many news sources reported the event by quoting the remark as it was spoken, but here’s the NYT version (in Maureen Dowd’s “Gadding Of a Gawky Gowk” on the 1st):

when reporters traveling with Romney mutinied as Mitt left a wreath-laying at a war memorial in Pilsudski Square, pressing to know why he was shutting them out, campaign spokesman Rick Gorka shot back crudely that the press should kiss a part of his anatomy, noting incongrously: “This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.”

The Times is apparently too modest to allow anatomical ass to appear in its pages (as opposed to on its website, where it occurs in blog entries and comments).

Meanwhile, a little while back, the Buffalo News struggled with nigger and nigga. And the Guardian defended its policy of printing problematic language verbatim and undisguised.

(Hat tip to Ben Zimmer on the Buffalo and Guardian stories.)

Three parts to the Buffalo story. First, there was Emma Sapong’s story “Slur or Slang? Even when spoken by blacks, it can be pejorative”, which reported on uses of nigger and nigga in a variety of contexts, using the dashed spellings throughout. Some samples:

“Get your hands off me, little n—-r!” It was 1948 in segregated Alabama, and Mary, a black youngster, had mistaken a white man for her fair-skinned grandfather.

“What’s good, my n—a?,” is how 19-year-old Maurice Brown welcomes a fellow basketball player onto the court.

“The truth is, before the early 1800s, blacks were referring to themselves as “n—a,'” said David Pilgrim, a sociology professor and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Michigan.

“The country created this thing called a n—-r, and they called him 3/5 of a person, subhuman,” said [Frank] Mesiah [of the NAACP], 83.

For their “1- N—-rs!” pregame chant, Kenmore East’s varsity girls basketball team last year endured national scolding, school and game suspensions, loss of an award and mandatory sensitivity training.

Second, Sapong did a sidebar, “Why I had to write this story” (here), beginning:

Why did I write this story? Intrigued by recent local news events that brought the notorious n-word to public attention, I wanted to dissect the word’s split personality, pin down its history, its rise through music, and the pain it has caused.

She wrote about her own (painful) personal hstory with the word, using n—-r throughout.

Finally, editor Margaret Sullivan explained the dashes, in ” ‘Slur or slang’: The story behind the ‘n-word’ story in today’s Viewpoints section” (here):

Sometimes stories make their way into the paper with very little discussion. A reporter goes out to cover an event, writes it up, it goes through the normal editing process and is published within hours (or, on the web, within minutes).

Others — investigative projects, for example — get a great deal more consideration. Multiple editors, and sometimes  lawyers, read it and consult with each other. Eventually, the story is published and when it finally appears in print we feel as if we’ve been through a difficult childbirth.

It’s a rarity when a feature story — rather than a hard-news story — falls into that second category. But that’s the case with today’s Viewpoints cover story by Emma Sapong, which takes up the history and changing nature of what is commonly known as “the ‘n’ word.”

… the biggest point of discussion centered on how to use the various forms of the ‘n’ word in the story.

 Rod [Watson, urban affairs editor] strongly favored using the full word throughout the story, without the usual dashes; he thought it was pandering to do otherwise. We ought to give our readers credit for being able to handle seeing the word in print. Emma leaned that way, too.

I disagreed, believing that many News readers would be offended, if not outraged. I knew that I would have that reaction myself. The word is just too fraught with pain, and The News is not part of the inner circle which can use the word freely.  (Emma describes this dynamic in her piece.)

One step we took along the way was to discuss the issue with our diversity advisory council, most of whose members are African-American readers of The News. They were unanimous: Use dashes.

I was glad to hear it but, the truth is, I could not have countenanced doing anything else. We did, at Rod’s suggestion, differentiate between the two uses of the word by using a final letter of ‘r’ or ‘a,’ along with dashes in the middle.

[Ben Zimmer added that “Sullivan will soon be taking a new job, as public editor of the New York Times, where she won’t be able to get away with the dashes.” The Times doesn’t do avoidance characters.]

Then there’s the Guardian, which has been printing stuff untouched for some time. Here’s editor David Marsh on “The risks of using asterisks in place of swearwords” (on July 22nd, here):

We have become so used to reporting language as it is spoken, or alleged to have been spoken, that during my close involvement in editing many of these stories it never crossed my mind that we might not quote the words, however offensive, in full. Nor had I paid much attention to other newspapers’ approach until a Twitter user commented that, before he saw the word “knobhead” in the Guardian, he did not know what the word denoted by another newspaper as k******* was supposed to be. I sympathise. How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******? (The former, of course, is “bastards”; the latter, “bollocks”.)

The language spoken in [a recent case that was much in the news] was not in question. (John Terry admitted using the words “fucking black cunt”; the chief magistrate accepted that the England defender might have used the phrase not to insult Anton Ferdinand “but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him”.) Yet readers of almost all newspapers, as well as radio and television viewers, were judged not grown up enough to see, in full, the actual words. This seems wrong to me for several reasons.

First, people are being denied a full and accurate report of what the entire case hinged on: the swearing was central, not peripheral. Second, the shocking force of the language used is surely diminished by reducing it to asterisks. Third, readers are being treated as children, unable to cope with the reality – however unpleasant – of what, we now learn, highly paid professional footballers say to each other on the pitch.

The nigger/nigga and fucking … cunt cases are not, of course, parallel; indeed, the black of fucking black cunt is closer to nigger, since that’s where the insult lies.


7 Responses to “On the taboo/slur watch”

  1. sissy Says:

    My first thought on reading “the press should kiss a part of his anatomy, noting incongrously: “This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.”” was to wonder what happened at Gorka’s ass that makes it so important to Poland.

  2. Cursing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Yes, “you damn wetbacks”. Either the writer of the story or the editors of the website thought that wetback has become an unprintable slur. So readers are protected from it as well as fuck, shit, and (even) damn. Far too much asterisking going on here, to the point of obscurity (see the Guardian‘s take on the matter, here). […]

  3. Robert Says:

    I find it puzzling — although it seems to be true for a lot of people — that “n—-r” is OK but “nigger” is right out, when it’s perfectly obvious that the former is a representation of the latter, and anyone reading the piece is going to mentally substitute the full word for the “avoiding” version anyway.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I suppose these people don’t read these texts out loud, or report them in conversation, but treat them *only* as written texts.

      • Robert Says:

        I still don’t understand what kind of person is deeply offended when they read “nigger” and not when they read “n—–r” in a context where the former is clearly the word being “avoided”. But then again I don’t understand a lot of things about people, especially what offends them.

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

    […] posting also has an update of my inventory of postings on the paper’s taboo avoidance); and here, with anatomical ass in the quote “kiss my ass” avoided by reference to “a part […]

  5. aka Darrell Says:

    I think it was Dick Cavett who wrote that he would argue with the censors that each time they suppressed a taboo word that they put five ideas in the listeners head.

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