Follow-up: reporting Eastwood

Discussion yesterday on ADS-L about Clint Eastwood at the RNC (on this blog, here), in which Benjamin Barrett noted that

… because it was unsaid, there are necessarily going to be people who don’t get the interpretation of “fuck yourself”

and Joel Berson added (note smiley):

Since there are (allegedly) such people, then shouldn’t papers of record like the NY Times and the Boston Globe have undertaken to explain it?  : – )

I followed up with observations about the practices of newspapers like the Times, and today Larry Horn connected these to the euphemism treadmill, with a quote from Cicero.

I began, in reply to Joel Berson:

As I’ve noted many times on my blog (and Language Log), the NYT (and some other papers) not only will not print various taboo items but also will not allow ostentatious avoidance strategies like asterisking (f***, etc.) and “the F-word / the F-bomb”.  That policy reduces them to very indirect allusions (“used a common obscenity”, “said he had messed up, but not in those terms”, “swore like a sailor”). In fact, their policy tends to be even more constrained than that, since they seem to disprefer indirect allusions that allow the original wording to be easily and unambiguously retrieved — believing, I think, that such practices are almost as offensive as using the words themselves.

At this point, Larry Horn interposed:

following Ciceronic reasoning, in the same passage in which he describes the euphemism treadmill:

If what is indicated by the word is not indecent [turpe], the word indicating it cannot be indecent. When you speak of the anus, you call it by a name [anus ‘ring’] that is not its own; why not rather call it by its own [culus]? If it is indecent, do not use even the substituted name; if not, you had better call it by its own. The ancients used to call a tail penis, and hence from its resemblance to a tail, the word penicillus [pencil, but also source of “penicillin”]. But nowadays, penis is among the obscenities [in obscenis]. “Yes, but the famous Piso Frugi complains in his Annals that youths are given up to the penis [adulescentes peni deditos esse].” What you in your letter call by its own name [mentula, the standard term for ‘penis’ at the time] he with more reserve calls penis; but because so many people use it so, it has become as obscene as the word you used. (Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares [Letters to his Friends] IX.xxii, Rome, 45 BCE)

I continued, about the Gray Lady and her sisters:

So they’re often boxed in by their own practices. Where they can, they’re likely to edit the potentially offending material out entirely, or to paraphrase with non-taboo vocabulary. In this case, Eastwood’s wording was already inflammatory (many people viewed it as offensive, and the Times described it as “off-color”), so the paper went out on a limb only so far as to quote Eastwood directly and in full. (There are probably people on the paper who feel that was too far.)

We’ve gotten to a bad place when “He can’t do that to himself” is considered offensive.

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