The language of "Mad Men" and the perils of self-expurgation

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My latest "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine (along with a followup Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus) takes an in-depth look at the language of "Mad Men," the critically acclaimed AMC series that begins its fourth season on Sunday. Though I'm not as hard on the show as fellow Language Logger John McWhorter, I do single out various linguistic anachronisms (or at least potential ones) that have cropped up thus far.

Despite this caviling, I was impressed to hear from the show's creator and head writer Matthew Weiner about the extent to which words and phrases are researched during the vetting of the scripts. He even revealed two such words that were checked out for inclusion in coming episodes, despite the code of silence surrounding Season 4 in advance of the premiere. I was unable to make explicit mention of one of those words in The Times, so I'll come clean here.

Quoting the column:

One [of the words] is humorless, a pedestrian adjective that is recorded back to the mid-19th century but nonetheless sounded “really modern” in the portion of dialogue where it appears. The other word is much more vivid — too vivid for print here, in fact, but suffice to say it’s a scatological slur for a person’s head.

In case it's unclear from my oblique description, the second word is shithead. It's been common sport here on Language Log to point out these Timesian circumlocutions when they arise — see, for instance, my post "Times bowdlerizes column on Times bowdlerization" from 2008 (before I signed up with The Gray Lady). Of course, now that I have to perform my own circumlocuting, I realize it's no easy task to maintain decorum while hinting strongly enough at what the naughty word actually is. (I see my metalinguistic hoop-jumping stumped at least one Twitterer, Ad Broad aka Helen Klein Ross, who guessed that I meant shitfaced.)

On further reflection, I'm not terribly fond of the phrase "a scatological slur for a person’s head." After all, shithead is a slur for a person, through a metonymic reference to that person's head (or the contents thereof). I think I did a slightly better job expurgating myself last week in my reader response about the word anniversary:

A few years ago, when The San Francisco Chronicle ran a headline reading, "Four-year anniversary draws protests," an irate reader left a profanity-riddled voicemail that unkindly insinuated what substance could be found between the ears of Phil Bronstein, then the editor of The Chronicle.

The Chronicle reader (of "pilotless drone" fame) actually said of Bronstein, "What this indicates is that you have shit between your ears," a more colorful variation on the insult shit-for-brains. (The Chronicle podcast bleeps out shit, but it's obvious enough from the context.)

As for the use of shithead on "Mad Men," Weiner and company were absolutely right to deem it acceptable for its mid-'60s milieu. It appears in the 1961 edition of Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, and the OED's Jesse Sheidlower tells me it is also recorded from 1945 in a folklore journal, from 1955 in a military novel, and from 1961 in a letter by Charles Bukowski. It's even alluded to by Ben Hecht in his 1933 play The Great Magoo, in the form manure-head. Hecht was clearly a master of self-expurgation.

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28 Comments »

  1. YM said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 1:55 am

    How about 'scatocephalic'?

  2. Adrian Bailey said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 4:15 am

    Coprocephalic and its variants gets quite a few ghits.

  3. jim said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    Catch-22 (first published, Wikipedia informs me, in 1961) features a character called Leutenant Scheisskopf, who is referred to in at least one instance by the English version of his name. It might have been anachronistic in the book's WWII setting, but not, of course, when it was written.

  4. anon said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 6:43 am

    "Weisskopf" seems to be a fairly common German name; I cannot believe that generations of German schoolboys ignored the obvious until 1961.

  5. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    Apropos of Lt. Scheisskopf in Catch-22, I've always wondered (but have never been sufficiently curious to look it up) how his name appears in a German translation of the novel. No solution seems ideal.

    And I have to confess that Ben's circumlocution for "shithead" failed to evoke the word for me.

  6. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 9:06 am

    A former coworker who taught high school for a short time told us that one of his students was named Shithead, pronounced something like Shi-theed'. The story sounds apocryphal but I have no reason to doubt him.

    [(bgz) Apocryphal indeed.]

  7. language hat said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I have no reason to doubt him.

    Actually, yes, you do. Would you believe him if he told you he went on a date and when he came back (I omit the ooga-booga intervening details), there was a hook on the door handle?

  8. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    @language hat: Actually, no I don't. I have no reason to doubt him because I know him. You clearly don't.

    @bgz (and lh): I submit that the fact that there is an apocryphal story about an event does not mean that such an event never happened. As I said to language hat, I know the person who told the story. I trust him implicitly; I think most people who know him would consider him honest to a fault. In my estimation, for him to lie about this story (or pretty much anything else) would be far more improbable than for it to actually have happened, however unlikely that might seem.

  9. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    I've obviously been reading this blog too long, My reaction to this little dust-up was to search a large corpus. So I asked switchboard.com to find me a "Shithead" anywhere in the US. Zero results. "Schmuck," used as a control, turned up approx. 300. That doesn't prove there's no one named "Shithead" out there, but it's suggestive. Of course, one positive would change everything. Maybe there's someone out there weird enough to think a surname spelled and pronounced as Mark P describes would be fun to switch to.

    Reflecting on my own surname and the stories I've been told about some of my ancestors, I sometimes wonder if the Austrian surname-assigners were being ironic. But that's another story.

  10. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    The name was a given name, not a surname. That would be harder to search for. I cannot say with absolute certainty that any person was given the name "Shithead" as my friend said, but as I said, I trust my friend. If it is true, it's not likely an adult would go around using that name (if it had to be spelled), much less that it would be entered into a database, telephone directory or public school roster.

    Purely as a side note, I believe that the name was supposed to have been given not through misunderstanding or misspelling of some other name, but because the namer liked the sound as it was supposed to be pronounced. That it ended up being spelled like that other word was an unfortunate coincidence. Much like the neighbor who insists that his name is pronounced Mr. "Buh-tho'-lee".

    [(bgz) Or like Nicholas Cage in the classic SNL sketch: "It's Ahs-wee-pay."]

  11. Terry Collmann said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 1:15 pm

    Well, I went to school with an R. Sole, so who knows …

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

    An account rep calling on my firm had Richard "Roy" Head on his business cards. My immediate reaction (silently) was that his chosen nickname was more likely to evoke the appellation he wished to avoid than would something like Rick Head.

  13. George said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    @LL – Doesn't the NYT Mag allow naughticons like s#*head?

  14. Trond Engen said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    Is this the right place to air one's amusement with the recent NYT editorial demanding Free Speech for Broadcasters, Too?

  15. Doug said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    Mark P wrote:

    "I know the person who told the story. . . . In my estimation, for him to lie about this story (or pretty much anything else) would be far more improbable than for it to actually have happened, however unlikely that might seem."

    I'm not sure anyone said it was likely to be a case of lying. Sometimes, when you investigate this sort of thing, it turns out that your source will clarify that he himself didn't actually meet the "Shithead", but that he heard about the kid from his friend Barbara, who had the student in her class. Then you track down Barbara, who clarifies that she didn't actually meet the kid, but just heard about the name from Charlie, and so on. No one lied, but upon examination, it turns out that no one has first-hand evidence.

    If you want to convince the doubters here, the best thing then would be to call your former coworker and check whether his experience was first-hand. If we can actually get a quote from someone who says, "Yes, I met Shithead myself, face-to-face," it will certainly help.

  16. Mark P said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Doug, I agree with what you say, but as I said, I have no reason to doubt my friend. Besides, I prefer to think that there is someone walking around who was originally named Shithead Asswipe Buthole. Pronounced Shi-theed Ahs-wee-pay Buh-tho-lee.

  17. Vivian de St. Vrain said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

    This from memory and I hope I'm correct. "Shithead" — shi-thead — is listed among the unusual names in Freakonomics.

  18. Ken Brown said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 8:16 pm

    The two Richard Heads I have known both called themselves Dick Head. One of them had the name on his office door. Maybe they thought attack the best means of defence.

    And my own mother taught in a school which had a student called Spikey Bastard. These things sometimes really happen.

  19. Xmun said,

    July 22, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

    Shithead Asswipe Buthole. Pronounced Shi-theed Ahs-wee-pay Buh-tho-lee

    Weird mispronunciations have been adopted with more ordinary names. There was once a neighbour of ours married to a Mr Trollope who called herself Mrs Tro-low-pay.

  20. John Cowan said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 12:57 am

    To say nothing of Hyacinthe Bouquet, wife of plain Richard Bucket.

    [(bgz) And let's not forget the W.C. Fields character Egbert Sousé.]

  21. blahedo said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 1:28 am

    @Vivian: I have the same memory, but I'm not sure where my copy is. I'll see if I can track it down.

  22. blahedo said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 2:02 am

    Found it (first place I looked!). The Shithead reference is on p174:

    Roland G. Fryer Jr., while discussing his names research on a radio show, took a call from a black woman who was upset with the name just given to her baby niece. It was pronounced shuh-TEED but was in fact spelled "Shithead."

    Levitt and Dubner acknowledge the secondhand nature of the anecdote in a footnote; it's certainly not dispositive evidence.

  23. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    "Doug, I agree with what you say, but as I said, I have no reason to doubt my friend."

    This is all painfully familiar to those of us who are old hats of alt.folklore.urban. Not merely the insistence on "I trust my friend", but about names in particular. All such discussions/arguments about "funny names" ended up being informally banned from AFU.

    Mark, with all due respect, the process Doug describes happens constantly with related anecdotes and perhaps it might give you pause to consider if you yourself have ever done this and whether you consider yourself (or your friend considers you!) as trustworthy as you consider your friend.

    Of course some of these names actually do exist. As much as AFU folk like to research and debunk urban folklore, those who take such folklore seriously (and AFU has always been peopled by those who read Brunvand) are quite aware that the truth value of a bit of urban folklore is not of paramount importance. It usually is false, but that's more a function of what actually is of paramount importance…how folklore is spread and how it functions. Those things make it easy, in fact encourage, falsehoods to spread. But there's often a kernel of truth in all urban folklore and some of it is simply true.

    Be that as it may, with these things one best plays the odds and take a moderately skeptical stance rather than a credulous one.

    Finally, strongly related to how urban folklore functions, it is of the utmost importance to consider exactly why funny names such as "Shithead" are so widely reported and exactly what sort of people are said to be so named. With such pernicious factors in play, I think it becomes even more important to be skeptical as a matter of ethical principle. Even if it is true, the dissemination of the folklore serves a destructive and often malicious purpose.

  24. Mark P said,

    July 23, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    Keith, I refer you to my comment and yours: "I agree with what you said."

    Do you know my friend?

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    Mark, I don't know, you haven't mentioned his name. I might.

    Note that you've progressed from referring to this person as "a coworker" who told the story to "us" to vouching for him as a personal friend whom you hold in the highest esteem. That suggests that you're perhaps emotionally overcommitted to defending your story.

    I suggest that you contact him and ask him directly if he personally had this student in his class. If you're proven right, you'll have the emotional satisfaction of telling me so. If not, it will be educational.

    However, I think you are not considering the point I made in my comment that the truth value is not as important as is how the story functions in a social context.

    As Barbara Mikkelson of snopes.com (who I knew back in my AFU days; she's a swell person…and I believe she and snopes met on AFU, actually) writes on the snopes page to which Mark linked:

    "Legend of the 'kid named Eczema' ilk attempt to reinforce belief in the rightness of racism or regionalism. Just as parables were used in the Bible to communicate in a simple-to-understand form a behavior thought worthy of emulation, racist legends try to drive home the point that the looked-down-upon group is inherently inferior. Presenting the moral in the form of a story makes it easier to absorb.

    "Racism and/or regionalism play a part in a number of legends…The more stories like these are told, the more the message of them is worked into the fabric of the people exposed to them. Hearing the 'kid named Eczema' story again and again makes it that much more easy to think of Blacks as less intelligent.

    "Was there ever a mother so stupid as to name her kid Eczema without realizing what the name meant? Probably not. But because the story fits in with what's already believed about the shortcomings of whichever group the mother is supposedly part of, the tale will be re-told and believed anew."

    That's what I obliquely meant when I said that such stories are often destructive and sometimes actively malign. Even if true—and they usually aren't—it's just Not Good to keep them alive.

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    July 24, 2010 @ 1:11 am

    (Oh, sorry, it was Ben who linked to snopes.)

  27. HP said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    FWIW, when, in my youth, I spent a few months as a substitute teacher in American public schools, I once had a student named "Aeneas." Without really thinking, when I called the roll, I pronounced his name as I would the hero of Virgil's epic poem. This lead to a round of applause from the classroom of 12-year-olds, and a huge sigh of relief from the boy in question.

    This lead to a perfectly casual discussion of the Trojan war, the founding of Rome, and Dante's Inferno. It was the best day ever in my substitute teaching career.

  28. Joe said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

    Yeah, I thought I saw a quote from Bukowski with shithead in it. I think it was in a Twitter account I follow (www.twitter.com/bukquotes). Or maybe somewhere else. But I think it was from the early sixties.

    Anyway, good to see both Bukowski and Mad Men talked about in the same article.

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