Scatological advice

(Consider the title; perhaps not to everyone’s taste.)

Recently, a message from Steven Levine, adding to my stock of euphemisms in the Gray Lady, as we know the New York Times. The paper is famously meticulous about avoiding taboo vocabulary, to the point of doing its best to eschew even asterisking (on the grounds that that’s virtually spelling out the offensive words). Their circumlocutory euphemisms are sometimes entertaining, but often baffling. (See the Page of postings on Taboo vocabulary on this blog, which tags avoidance discussions, including many from the Gray Lady.)

Steven’s exemplar: From the NYT on 5/30, “In Days of Discord, a President Fans the Flames”:

The turmoil came right to Mr. [REDACTED]’s doorstep for the second night in a row on Saturday as hundreds of people protesting Mr. Floyd’s death and the president’s response surged in streets near the White House. While most were peaceful, chanting “black lives matter” and “no peace, no justice,” some spray painted scatological advice for Mr. [REDACTED], ignited small fires, set off firecrackers and threw bricks, bottles and fruit at Secret Service and United States Park Police officers, who responded with pepper spray.

Yes, yes, scatological advice. I guessed this was SHIT ON [REDACTED], which is certainly scatological, but not in fact any kind of advice: it looks like an imperative, exhorting people to defecate on Grabpussy, but is in fact a derogatory dismissive, a more obscene version of (THE) HELL WITH [REDACTED] (admittedly, perhaps by suggesting that putting feces on him would be justly deserved).

But no. Shit was not involved.

The facts. Another writeup of the story, from The Hill on 5/29, in “White House goes on brief lockdown after protest erupts nearby”:

One video showed a man with a bandan[n]a around his neck spray-painting “F–k [REDACTED]” onto Freedman’s Bank Building, which is adjacent to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

From the video in that story, this screen shot of the offense in progress:

Ah, FUCK [REDACTED]. Certainly not advice (except perhaps in the Gray Lady’s owlish description, affecting solemnity), but the primary derogatory dismissive in English: FUCK YOU!, not FUCK YOURSELF! (as Jim McCawley so carefully elaborated on many years ago).

So: not advice. But is it in any sense scatological?

From NOAD, which is bracingly straightforward:

adj. scatological: relating to or characterized by an interest in excrement and excretion: scatological humor | juvenile scatological obsessions.

But, as with so many things, language is a bit more complex. From a 5/7/18 posting of mine, “The profane domain”, about the world of invectives, expletives, curses / cursing, profanity, swearing, and the like:

What to call the field of profane-domain linguistics? One Wikipedia page (clearly written by someone who knew James D. McCawley, since it refers to him as “Jim”) proposes scatolinguistics (lit. ‘shitty linguistics’, but naturally extendable to ‘dirty-language linguistics’)

It’s a natural metonymy, expanding reference to shit to reference to anything “dirty”, shit being the prime exemplar of dirtiness. So, conceivably, the NYT could try to maintain that FUCK [REDACTED] was scatological because it was obscene. A stretch, but they could try.

Their problem was that they had no easy way to describe the curse FUCK [REDACTED], and for some reason chose not to use obscene slogan or something similar (they avoid the F-word, because that’s too vivid).

It is, however, entertaining to see them squirming on the end of this hook.



2 Responses to “Scatological advice”

  1. chrishansenhome Says:

    The Grauniad stopped with the euphemisms years ago. The Economist also prints them in full when required. The New Yorker has been printing rude words since William Shawn was pushed out, or soonish thereafter.

    I was a bit nonplussed yesterday, however, when a BBC Radio 4 program, an interview with Louis Theroux, used the words “bullshit”, “fuck”, and “motherfucker” in the 8 pm slot.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I have no easy way of documenting this, but I have a distinct memory of an article in the Boston Globe from the 1970s or ’80s which described an altercation between two members of the Boston City Council, in which each told the other that he was “a fucking asshole”, and I was astonished to see the unredacted phrase in the Globe, which to this day does not print fuck or shit or their derivatives. (I believe they made an exception for a Certain Person’s reference to “shithole countries”, and maybe they allow bullshit as a term of art.) I guess the quotations from the City Councillors slipped through the cracks somehow.

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