Follow-up: The A-Word

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting about avoidance of taboo initials — especially F — in the New York Times: titles of books, plays, movies, musical albums, etc. present a special challenge to the NYT, in that indirect allusions or paraphrases (the paper’s usual scheme) are extremely difficult to manage (since they do violence to the titles); this is a rare occasion on which the paper will resort to asterisking, dashing, or underlining-out the entire offending word.

For his latest book, Geoff Nunberg has thoughtfully selected a main title that averts the difficulty for the Times, moving the offending item to the subtitle.

The book’s cover:

The Times will now be able to refer to the book as The A-Word, just as the paper refers to Jesse Sheidlower’s book on fuck as The F-Word. The paper bans F-word etc. as bits of taboo avoidance (No writing things like “Oh, [F-word] the penguin” in a quotation from a speaker), but allows these expressions when they quote titles exactly.

In a comment on yesterday’s posting, H.S. Gudnason noted the Times‘s most recent battle with offensive titles, in coping with the play Cock. From Matt Wolf’s piece (“The Playwright Who Chose That Title”, in print of May 6th) on the matter:

Late in 2009 Mike Bartlett opened his third play at the Royal Court Theater here, where it sold out its entire run before the first preview and went on to win an Olivier Award the next March. The same play is now in previews Off Broadway for its American premiere, with a different cast but with the London creative team on board.

But what is the play’s name? There’s the rub. As have other Royal Court dramatists before him, Mr. Bartlett has given his work a title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers [a link to the Times review of Shopping and Fucking, referred to in the paper as Shopping and…]. Let’s just say that the word will be instantly recognizable either as a slang reference to a portion of the male anatomy or for any of its multiple other meanings, which include a barnyard animal and also a verb that you might apply when preparing to use a gun. (The barnyard image dominates the clever Web site, [the site is actually titled “Cock at the Duke”] for the New York production…)

The New York Times refers to it as “____ (The Cockfight Play)” [with four underlines standing for the four letters in the title]

The latest chapter in this sort of NYT taboo avoidance, with the twist that cockfight is printable because it has barnyard cock in it, not anatomical cock, while the title has the noun by itself. Sigh.

On a related matter, another comment, from Greg Stump:

I visited the Cincinnati Art Museum on Saturday. One room there is currently devoted to artistic depictions of Venice. Stenciled on the wall are various memorable quotations about Venice, including one from Charles Dickens: “Dreamy, beautiful, inconsistent, impossible, wicked, shadowy, d-able old place.” In print publications, the offending word in this quotation (from a letter to Douglas Jerrold in 1844) is rendered as “d—able”. Perhaps the minimization of the ellipsis in “d-able” was intended to make the word less offensive; in any event, I doubt that mine was the first d-ouble take that it prompted.

Many taboo scholars have noted that in English the shift in taboos switched from the 19th century (when literally profane — religiously based — taboos prevailed) to the 20th (which saw the rise in sexually and excretorily based taboos), especially as a consequence of the two World Wars. (Nice discussion in Nunberg’s book.)

On damn, see Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore:

Bad language or abuse,
I never, never use,
Whatever the emergency;
Though “bother it” I may
Occasionally say,
I never use a big, big D —
What, never?

No, never!
What, never?
Hardly ever!
Hardly ever swears a big, big D —
Then give three cheers, and one cheer more,
For the well-bred Captain of the Pinafore!
Then give three cheers, and one cheer more,
For the Captain of the Pinafore!

Big D: the D-word of an earlier time.

3 Responses to “Follow-up: The A-Word”

  1. Marjane Satrapi « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Note that this is on-line. You can find other occurrences of asshole on the paper’s website (in reviews of the 2009 movie Asshole, for instance), but in general on its print pages the paper avoids both the word and the ostentatious avoidance A-word (see here). […]

  2. The pussy patrol « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] in light of the paper’s ostentatious avoidance of the title of the play Cock (reported on here), since pussy and cock both have non-taboo senses that could have allowed their appearance in the […]

  3. More A-word « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a comment on my A-word posting (about Geoff Nunberg’s choice of a book title — The A-Word — that would allow the […]

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