Another chapter in the saga of taboo avoidance in the NYT. In the last chapter, the paper had moved past its refusal to use avoidance strategies like F*** and the F-word, which flaunt the offending initial F, to avoiding the letter F within initialisms when it disguises the word fuck: STFU (for “shut the fuck up”) in this most recent case, but WTF (for “what the fuck”) and LMFAO (for “laughing my fucking ass off”, which involves anatomical ass, also tabooed) as well. Any allusion to the offending word by means of its initial letter is itself offensive.
These efforts at cleansing language in the Gray Lady’s pages have evoked lots of responses in critics; in a moment I’ll get to Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon (“The New York Times’ F-word problem; The paper of record goes to extremes to avoid profanity again and again — and misses the story” on August 10th). First, some further recapping.
Some recent postings on the NYT‘s taboo avoidance strategies: here, with fuck avoided in the blog title Fuck, I’m in My Twenties by a reference to “a common vulgar interjection” and shit avoided in a quote from Lupe Ontiveros by a nimble paraphrase of “chicken shit” by “chicken manure” (this posting also has an update of my inventory of postings on the paper’s taboo avoidance); and here, with anatomical ass in the quote “kiss my ass” avoided by reference to “a part of his anatomy”.
Mostly, the paper goes to some trouble to point reasonably clearly to the offending word that’s been avoided, though often you can’t be sure about precisely which one it was; it could have been shit rather than fuck in the first example, and butt rather than ass in the third. What the paper does communicate is that the avoided word is high on the taboo scale; the avoided word in the first example was probably not damn (or darn), and in the third example it was probably not derriere (or behind).
In other cases, like the second example above, it might not even be clear to the reader that a taboo item was avoided; in that example, manure is already “salty” enough in content that the reader might not suspect that Ontiveros said shit. Then we get to cases where the paper conceals things even further, as in the STFU case. Now to Mary Elizabeth Williams, who I’ll quote at length:
The New York Times prides itself on being one of the last, great bastions of clean language. It is a place where no F bombs drop, where dads do not say “shit.” Yet in an increasingly bleepworthy world, the paper of record’s profanity-avoidance tactics are beginning to look not just demure, but like poor journalism.
The paper’s latest bout of primness came on Wednesday in a story about an app that enables Facebook users to “Unbaby Me.” In the piece, writer Austin Considine notes that, “There are already blogs devoted to mocking over-sharing parents who, for example, post photos of their placentas. (‘You used to be fun,’ reads the tagline. ‘Now you have a baby.’)”
The quote is from B., as she’s known online, the Brooklyn-based creator of STFU, Parents. Yet you wouldn’t know that from The Times’ story, which conspicuously didn’t name or link to her blog. The Times had no such hesitation about naming an online store called AntiBaby or acknowledging the Stuff Hipsters Hate blog. This troubled B., who emailed The Times “in the hope that it will be credited.”
What she got instead was a pithy retort from The Times’ senior standards editor Greg Brock, who informed her that, “We did not name the site because The Times does not use such references when they refer to things like Shut the F*ck Up. Just last week we omitted a full reference to WTF (What the F—). Instead, we noted that we were referring to a podcast by Marc Maron.”
Let me point out here that in this letter, Brock avoids fuck by asterisking (F*ck) and dashing-out (F—) — not in the pages of the genteel Times, but in a letter to B. (admittedly, a letter that would appear on-line). Apparently, the Times staff can’t bring themselves to spell the word out in full in any context, for any audience. That makes what Brock says next even more ridiculous.
Brock moves from stating the paper’s position as a flat principle of house style. (The paper is, of course, within its rights to lay down any rule of house style it wants, however ridiculous or arbitrary. It could prohibit split infinitives (though it doesn’t); it could insist on periods throughout all initialistic abbreviations (which it does, fervently though somewhat inconsistently, but against the practice of almost all other publications and against the practice of many of the organizations it refers to); it could prohibit any sentence that begins with the letter B or has an odd number of words in it (which of course it doesn’t do — but it could, if the fancy took it).)
He went on to explain his logic: “For one reason, we don’t like to include such references for younger readers — or for any readers who might be offended. Granted, we aren’t the parents of young readers. But we feel some obligation to try to maintain The Times as a respectable publication and respect all of our readers.” In other words, even the mere suggestion of a profanity – an F placed suggestively betwixt an ST and a U, or after a W and a T, may be all right for you bloggers and you podcasters, but it is certainly not OK for a “respectable” publication.
As B. told Salon on Thursday, the rather snooty implication is that “my site is somehow too vulgar or offensive for readers. But then, why reference it at all?” (Salon emailed editor Greg Brock Thursday; he has not replied to our request for comment.) [That's a fair question; as it stands, this amounts to an unattributed quotation, in the midst of attributed references. B. has been erased.] But if naughty words and all allusions to them are not respectable enough for The Times’ readers, I guess that the Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech,” which features a torrent of “fucks,” is not, as well. Certainly the critically acclaimed, award-winning films of Quentin Tarantino, the television series of David Chase, the plays of David Mamet, the novels of Henry Miller, the songs of the Beastie Boys and Kanye West, and the musical of Trey Parker and Matt Stone [The Book of Mormon] – many of which have been enthusiastically reviewed in The New York Times — are not really “respectable.” Good to know! Somehow, however, the [pop-rock] duo LMFAO makes the cut. Apparently the key to New York Times–level respectability is a penchant for party rocking.
The Times has forever grappled awkwardly with its intense determination to keep itself verbally unsullied. When I mentioned the STFU debacle on Twitter yesterday, the great linguist and former Times columnist Ben Zimmer leapt helpfully into the fray, offering some outstanding recent examples of The Times’ profanity avoidance and also pointing to Arnold Zwicky’s hilarious chronicles of all that which “The Gray Lady avoids.” [thank you, MEW.]
From a 2008 posting of mine, “Getting laid in the NYT (part 2)”, which describes inconsistencies in the NYT‘s practices, and explains why inconsistency is inevitable, and then goes on to take up the “we’re protecting the children” argument:
All of this dodging about [hinting at the identity of particular expressions without using them] is supposed to be in the name of protecting children (though some of it is probably a way of avoiding fines or lawsuits or just objections, which are in turn usually justified as a way of protecting children). The Times occasionally trots out the defense that it is a “family newspaper”, but it’s hard to take that seriously as a characterization of a publication that has no cartoons, no personal-advice columns (like “Ann Landers” or “Dear Abby”), no puzzles for kids, no horoscope, and almost no celebunews. But the Times doesn’t shy away from topics that many people would prefer to shield children from — rape, torture, sexual slavery, suicide, hate crimes, child abuse, serial killings, mass murder, and much more — or even from stories on “intimate” sexual topics, so long as they are treated in neutral language — teenage pregnancy, extramarital sex, oral sex, contraception, abortion, pornography, infertility, erectile disfunction, homosexuality, and so on. Nor should it.
No one should imagine that any children who happen to be reading the Times are being shielded from unpleasant realities and intimate matters. They’re being shielded from bits of language — granted, bits of language, some of which are widely considered to be infused with bad magic.
(In that case, the expressions get laid and porno got pulled into the dark orbit of tabooed language.)
The Times‘s notions of respectability seem positively Victorian; I’m almost surprised that Brock didn’t claim to be protecting the delicate sensibilities of the weaker sex. Maybe the paper should recognize that the social world has changed enormously since the days of the Dear Old Queen. And then, as Williams points out, there’s the matter of journalistic responsibility:
The Times’ steadfast avoidance of all things four-lettered — and its mad asterisking and underscoring to that end — could just be written off as an amusingly old-fashioned stand for propriety. And while it may seem silly to care about whether or not The Times inserts a common bit of Internet slang into a story, by choosing what is nameable – and avoiding that which it deems not — The Times is failing massively in the primary job of journalism. To tell the truth. To tell it without judgment.
[Back on STFU, LMFAO, and so on, it's almost sad that the Times is so intransigent about avoiding asterisking and its equivalents except in very special circumstances: ST*U and LM*AO, or LM**O, masking the offending initials, would have been available to preserve their precious respectability -- or perhaps, on the model of F*** and A******, **F* and **FA*, using the offending initials to key to the other letters.]