Archive for Taboo vocabulary


Bina Shah, "Trying to Dam a Digital Sea", NYT 4/10/2014:

In September 2012, the Pakistani government expanded a ban on some YouTube contributors to a blockage of the whole video-sharing site, because the anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims” had appeared on it. Eighteen months later, the ban remains, exposing a simmering struggle within Pakistan over the basic issue of freedom of expression and information that could be decided in court next month. [...]

Alongside the legal battle, an irreverent social media campaign called #KholoBC has also emerged. Engineered by the Pakistan for All movement, a collective of young Pakistani tech enthusiasts, it features a song released by the Pakistani musician Talal Qureshi, the rapper Adil Omar and the comedian Ali Gul Pir with lyrics too rude to print in this newspaper. (So is a translation of the campaign’s name.) 

This squeamishness is familiar: See "The Gray Lady gets coy again", 4/21/2013, and the links therein.

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WaPo nixes midget

Yesterday brought new information about the Sunday comic strip I discussed in "Refreshing the S-word", 3/30/2014. We learned from Michael Cavna ("PEARLS BEFORE ‘NEIN’: Stephan Pastis finds irony in Post nixing strip about word choice…because of word choice", Washington Post 3/31/2014) why the Washington Post decided not to run that strip:

IN YESTERDAY’S “Pearls Before Swine,”, creator Stephan Pastis used his characters to engage in a playful dialogue over word choice. In the strip, Rat is talking to Goat about how certain words fall out of favor for more politically correct or gender-neutral terms. The culturally obsolete terms, Rat says, include “maid,” “stewardess,” “secretary” and “midget.”

Post editors were with Pastis … right up until “midget.” The M-word was enough to get the strip spiked. The print edition of Sunday’s comics ran an old “Pearls Before Swine” instead. (The “midget” strip did run, however, in the online version of The Post. Pastis said he had not heard of the strip being spiked by any other of his 600-plus newspaper clients.)

Post comics producer Donna Peremes flagged the strip and discussed it with Deputy Style Editor Eva Rodriguez. “We thought that ‘midget’ just wasn’t the same as ‘secretary.’ … Sort of apples and oranges,” Peremes explains to Comic Riffs. ” ‘Midget’ just carried a lot more of a charge — seemed more of a slur — than ‘stewardess’ or ‘secretary.’ ”

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Refreshing the S-word

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Antonin and Beppe

Victor Steinbok sends in an example of pan-European taboo avoidance at the BBC ("Profile: Beppe Grillo", BBC News Europe 2/26/2013):

Time magazine chose him as a "European Hero" that year, saying he used "over-the-top humour to probe the serious social issues that leaders don't want to touch".  

In 2007 he organised "V-Day" – the V stands for a well-known Italian obscenity – when a petition demanding clean politics in Italy gathered 300,000 signatures in the space of a few hours.

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Synonymy and quotational contexts in New Jersey

The "Say What?" feature on the Doonesbury site quotes this error correction from the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper, about the misreporting of something Governor Chris Christie's chief spokesman Michael Drewniak said:

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Drewniak referred to the Port Authority's executive director as a 'piece of crap.' While Drewniak did call him a 'piece of excrement,' it was David Wildstein who referred to the executive director as a 'piece of crap.'

What do we learn from this? (Remember, this is Language Log, not New Jersey Politics Log.)

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Plebgate: an overdue apology

It is time for Language Log to set things straight about the Right Honourable Andrew John Bower Mitchell MP. The story of what everyone thought had happened in London on 19 September 2012 was reported here (by yours truly) in this post and this follow-up. It involved (we all thought) a snooty and arrogant Conservative government minister and member of the House of Commons snarling words of class prejudice, in front of shocked independent bystanders, at an honest cop who was merely trying to enforce the laws that Parliament had ordained. The linguistic point of interest was that the nastiest of those words was alleged to be the noun pleb. Not the expressive expletive fucking: Mitchell never denied muttering something like I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us when the police told him to push his bike out of Downing Street through a small pedestrian gate rather than ride it through the big one. No, the scandal was that a minister of the crown had used a contemptuous upper-class snob's term for the common people.

Language Log repeated the story that the British newspapers gloried in; but after 15 months of glacially slow police investigation costing around a quarter of a million dollars, yielding one prosecution, the story now looks very different. It appears the Right Honourable Andrew Mitchell was both right and honorable. He was framed by lying cops, and deserves an apology.

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Getting worse and also better

A question from Roy Peter Clark:

Last week I taught a class for a group of middle school young men and their mentors.  Almost everyone in the room was African-American.  The content of the class was the history of the n-word and its current contexts and uses. It was one of the most lively hours I have ever spent in the classroom, mostly because of the candor and fervor of the participants.

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Stupid police investigation of racist language

As I have frequently pointed out here on Language Log before, the contrast between the constitutionally protected free speech of the USA and the many legal restraints on speech in the UK is really striking. In the latest incident, a British lord posted a tweet with a photo of three Chinese toddlers dressed in watermelon-rind costumes. Two of the kids look delighted, but the one in the center is crying. To accompany the picture the noble lord tweeted a remark that I will position below the jump, because I don't want those of a nervous disposition to see it. His remark was the subject of a police investigation. The question was whether it was so racist that it should be regarded as violating the criminal law. If you think you can bear it, take a deep breath and read on.

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Naughty meanings and naughty words

Piraro makes the point that he is allowed to publish a cartoon showing a street prostitute holding up a sign saying "GLUTEN FREE" (see it here), but he was censored when he came out with a cartoon showing a deadbeat vampire loiterer holding up a sign saying "WILL SUCK FOR BLOOD". Both clearly suggest the possibilty that oral sex is being referred to, if you have a dirty mind, but the second explicitly contains a word (suck) commonly recognized by the relevant prudish authorities as colloquial sex talk, wheras the first doesn't. The prostitute cartoon would doubtless also have been banned if it had incorporated the word eat, instead of just implying it through the reference to a potentially allergenic food ingredient. Piraro's comment on the situation is: "Americans (and maybe all humans, I'm not sure) are more obsessed with words than with their meanings."

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Blocked on Weibo

This afternoon I received in the mail the following book:

Jason Q. Ng. Blocked on Weibo: What Gets Suppressed on China's Version of Twitter (and Why). New York and London: The New Press, 2013.

In this wonderful volume, Jason Q. Ng runs all the terms in the Chinese-language version of Wikpedia through the search function of Sina Weibo to discover which ones are censored. The results are mind-boggling in their ramifications.

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The "-bag" of "slutbag"

In an interview with Talking Points Memo, Barbara Morgan, spokeswoman for New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, called former Weiner intern Olivia Nuzzi all sorts of names after Nuzzi publicly criticized the campaign. While the New York Times only revealed that Morgan used "several vulgar and sexist terms," the TPM report spelled it out: Morgan called Nuzzi a "bitch," a "cunt," a "twat," and most colorfully, a "fucking slutbag."

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"No homo"

In a sign of the times, "Hibbert's Remarks Result in a Fine", NYT 6/2/2013:

The N.B.A. fined Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert $75,000 Sunday, hours after Hibbert apologized for using an antigay slur and an obscenity in a news conference after his team’s victory against the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. [...]

In his postgame comments Saturday in Indianapolis, Hibbert used the term “no homo” when answering a question about defending the Heat star LeBron James on a play in the second half that resulted in James’s being called for an offensive foul. He later directed an obscenity toward reporters after being questioned on another topic.

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Getting rid of adverbs and other adjuncts

My post at Lingua Franca this week critiqued the following extraordinarily dumb piece of writing advice from Macmillan Dictionary Blog:

Try this exercise: Go through a piece of writing, ideally an essay of your own. Delete all adverbs and adverbial phrases, all those "surprisingly", "interestingly", "very", "extremely", "fortunately", "on the other hand", "almost invariably". (While you are at it, also score out those clauses that frame the content, like "we may consider that", "it is likely that", "there is a possibility that".)

Question 1: have you lost any content?
Question 2: is it easier to read?

Usually the meaning is still exactly the same but the piece is far easier to read.

As you might expect, I concentrated on adverbs. I didn't comment on the fact that one of the "adverbs and adverbial phrases" cited is nothing of the sort.

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Rendering "Pussy Riot" in Russian

With the international attention given to the trial and conviction of members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot on charges of "hooliganism," many have wondered online whether Pussy Riot is a translation of a Russian name. But no: the band consistently uses Pussy Riot (in Latin characters) on its official LiveJournal blog, even though most of the text is in Russian (in Cyrillic characters). This isn't too surprising among punk/alt-rock bands worldwide. Whether it's the Japanese noise rockers Boredoms or Russian ska-punks Distemper, musicians very often use English in Latin script for the names of their bands (and titles of albums and songs), even when their lyrics are in their native language. But how have Russian sources identified Pussy Riot?

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Holy s***! J-school punchy prose?

Yesterday's Missoulian, reporting on a non-shy mountain lion that was hanging around a campground in western Montana, had the following memorable sentence: `The kids were playing and Gerhard was stashing something in the minivan when her cousin hollered, "Holy (appropriate word under the circumstances), that's a mountain lion!"'  So the newspaper's editors don't want to print a classic four-letter cuss word, but surely there's a way to keep the sentence from sounding quite so silly?  Even "s***" wouldn't look as ridiculous as "(appropriate word under the circumstances)".  Better yet, they could just give up their aversion to including vulgarities in direct quotations.

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