The Gray Lady stands her ground

Another chapter in the saga of taboo avoidance in the New York Times — in this blog, the last chapter was here — this time in the Public Editor’s Journal on January 30th: “Does The Times Have Its Act Together on Vulgar Language?” by Margaret Sullivan, which begins by posing the question:

Should The Times write about a company if it can’t – or won’t — put the name of that company in the article?

She goes on:

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

But it happened this month when Ron Lieber, the business reporter and columnist, wrote about a Web site that helps people organize their financial lives. It has a word in it that only in the rarest of occasions appears in The Times, both in print or online.

Because of The Times’s style rules, which prohibit the use of such language except in the rarest of cases, the article carefully – coyly – wrote around the questionable word, in describing how a Seattle widow reacted to her husband’s death:

In the many months of suffering after Mr. Hernando’s death in July 2009, she beat herself up while spending dozens of hours excavating their financial life and slowly reassembling it. But then, she resolved to keep anyone she knew from ever again being in the same situation.

The result is a Web site named for the scolding, profane exhortation that her inner voice shouted during those dark days in the intensive care unit. She might have called it, but she changed just one word.

Many readers got it. Some did not.

A case of shit avoidance.

Sullivan consulted with Philip Corbett, associate managing editor for standards, who reiterated the paper’s position on “keeping coarse language out of The Times”, though Corbett conceded, “We’re definitely fighting a rear-guard action.”

Hat tips to Ned Deily and Ben Zimmer. Ben added a nice case of taboo display via substitution for an expletive, in an ad for accomodations site From the Adweek story:

The spot itself, directed by Traktor, is nicely put together, and gets just far enough beyond cheesy to turn the corner into charmingly goofy. The decision to hammer viewers over the head with the brand name by using it as substitute adjective for a certain curse word should be a lot more annoying than it is—the fact that it’s vaguely explicit makes it just self-deprecating enough to not be too abrasive. A lot hinges on the solid casting, too, in particular the exaggerated facial expressions—the extra-bored look on the teenage daughter’s face as the family shuffles down the hallway; the eye-popping effect the giant lobster has on the guy who’s ordered room service; the terror in the dweeb’s face as he and his girlfriend wind through the jungle, some cousin to a velociraptor screeching in the background.

“It doesn’t get any booking better than this!”, and then booking this and booking that, ending with “Booking.yeah”. Booking-A, dude.



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