On the taboo avoidance watch

Two items contributed by friends: something remarkable from the NYT, and something smaller from the BBC.

From the Times. A multi-part piece by Andrea Elliott on a homeless child, Dasani. From part 4:

At Church Avenue, the children and their mother [Chanel] pile off. The street looks familiar, but Chanel is unsure.

“We got off at the wrong stop,” Dasani announces.

Chanel fixes her gaze on Dasani.

“Shut the fuck up,” she says. “You know, that’s one thing I don’t like about you — your negativity. You always talkin’ about the problem. You got a solution?”

… Chanel’s fury mounts. She reaches for the same words every time, the kind that echo for days in Dasani’s head.

Dasani always gotta have the answer.

She think she special.

She think she some-fucking-body.

She nobody.

From tlhe public editor’s blog on the 12th, ” ‘Invisible Child’: Behind the Scenes, Before and After” by Margaret Sullivan:

Some readers have questioned the use of vulgarity in the series, including two instances of “the f-word” in Thursday’s installment, the most notable of which is in a quotation from Dasani’s mother as she addresses her directly. It’s highly unusual for The Times.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, explained:

We had a very thorough discussion of the use of the vulgarities in that passage, which are certainly not the norm for us. The writer and editors avoided language like that in other places. But they made a strong argument that the full quotations were important in this very crucial scene. In the end, we decided that for readers, more would be lost than gained if we tried to write around those passages here. And we concluded that using that language in this one spot — but not repeatedly scattered throughout the articles — would not be likely to distract or offend many readers. Our basic guidelines about avoiding vulgarities and obscenities haven’t changed, but we all recognize that there are cases where an exception is justified.

I’m very edgy about this account, because the Times is remarkably careful about taboo language from the powerful. Other publications (the Guardian, the New Yorker) quote from speakers of all sorts where they think the words capture the moment or the character. Here the Times has chosen to do this only for a desperately poor black woman. That stinks.

[Addendum 6/2/14: Ben Zimmer has gone bacxk to this case in a very nice posting on Language Log yesterday, “Not taking shit from the president?”, which takes off from the NYT‘s refusal to print Barack Obama’s “Don’t Do Stupid Shit” verbatim, converting it instead to “stupid stuff”.]

From the BBC. A link from Stan Carey, a BBC story “Cambridge rail worker’s health fears over excrement spray”:

Rail workers are being sprayed by human urine and faeces from passing trains, putting their health at risk.

… The man who works across the East Anglia region said: “A train would be coming and we’d stand back the recommended distance.

“It’s not unusual to feel a spray, a kind of mist in the air. That’s bad enough, but then you walk back to where you’ve been working on the tracks there’s [faeces] everywhere.”

The first occurrence — “urine and faeces” — is in the text, but then there’s there problem of quoting the worker, and the BBC went for an avoidance substitute for shit.

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