Archive for Taboo vocabulary

The paucity of curse words in Japanese, chapter 2

[Guest post by Bob Ramsey]

I’ve been thinking about this subject for more than thirty years. It started for me back in the late 70s. Back then, Herb Passin, who was at the time a professor of sociology at Columbia (remember him?), published a series of articles on language subjects in a popular Japanese magazine, and then in 1980 published them in an English-language volume called Japanese and the Japanese: Language and Culture Change (Kinseido). One of those essays of his was called “Comparative Profanity”, where he made the claim that “Japanese curse words and expletives are basically different in nature from the other major languages of the world.” The essay was more than a little over the top, of course, but it certainly gave me some food for thought.

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The paucity of curse words in Japanese

In "Ichiro Suzuki Uncensored, en Español:  Between the Lines, Japanese Star Is Known as a First-Class Spanish Trash Talker", via Andy Cheung, the Yankees outfielder is quoted thus:  "…we don't really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can't."

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"Spastic" and a different kind of "word crime"

Weird Al Yankovic's new song "Word Crimes" has generated a lot of heated discussion among linguists and other descriptivist types who didn't take kindly to its litany of language peeves — satire or no satire. (See my original post and Lauren Squires' guest post for extended commentary.) But in detailing various "word crimes," Weird Al managed to commit a linguistic foul of his own. And no, I'm not talking about the split infinitive at the end of the song ("Try your best to not drool"). Weird Al assured his Twitter followers that the line was an intentional bit of trolling:

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Not taking shit from the president?

In Politico's Playbook, Mike Allen notes that the slogan "Don't Do Stupid Shit" has worked its way into numerous journalistic descriptions of the "Obama Doctrine." "Playbook rarely prints a four-letter word — our nephews are loyal readers," Allen writes. "But we are, in this case, because that is the precise phrase President Obama and his aides are using in their off-the-record chats with journalists."

The New York Times, on the other hand, has only printed the slogan in expurgated fashion — this despite the fact that late Times editor Abe Rosenthal created a presidential exemption from the ban on printing "shit" in the Nixon era. As Rosenthal reportedly said after including "shit" in quotes of Watergate tape transcripts, "We'll only take shit from the President."

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No "linguistics" on Indiana license plates

In Indiana, a police officer successfully sued the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for the right to have a vanity license plate reading "0INK." According to the lawsuit, the message on the officer's license plate represents "an ironic statement of pride in his profession," but when he applied for a renewal his choice was rejected for impropriety. As the Indianapolis Star explains, a superior court judge has ruled that "the standards the BMV used to assess the appropriateness of personalized license plates were so vague that they violated the First Amendment." The lawsuit has also exposed the guidelines that the Indiana BMV is supposed to follow in determining if a vanity plate is objectionable. One of the big no-no's? "Linguistics"!

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"Ustam" + "k" = 10 months in jail

In Turkey, outspoken newspaper columnist Önder Aytaç has received a 10-month jail sentence over an errant "k" on Twitter.

Here is how the situation is explained in Zeynep Tufekci's widely cited Medium post:

Meet “k”, the character that got newspaper columnist and academic Önder Aytaç a 10 month jail sentence in Turkey. Aytaç is a columnist for a newspaper affiliated with the Gulenist movement, followers of Fettulah Gulen, the self-exiled cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and was once the AKP government’s closest ally, but now is among its bitterest enemies. The fight between the former allies surfaced over the closing of “private schools,” or “dershaneler,” which the Gulen movement operates in dozens of countries around the world, including the United States. These dershaneler are crucial to the movement as they are the source of both recruits and money. The Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdogan, announced in late 2013 that he would be shutting them down.

During the bitter fight, Onder Aytaç tweeted this:

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#KholoBC

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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