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.