When it comes to taboo mystification, sometimes the New York Times is just too damn coy. Last November, the name of the punk band "Fucked Up" ended up rendered in a Times concert review as a string of eight asterisks, with some oblique talk about how the name wasn't fit to print in the Times, "unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake." And here they go again: in a July 3 review of a concert by rapper 50 Cent and his crew G-Unit, critic Jon Caramanica writes:
One of the few bright spots in the later part of the show was the belligerent 2002 single with the unprintable title about fake gangsters that saved 50 Cent from becoming just a mixtape-slinging obscurity.
Where might we find out the mysterious title of 50 Cent's "belligerent 2002 single"? Well, one place to look is the Times' own coverage of the rapper.
Let's turn the clock back to Jan. 29, 2003. When Alessandra Stanley reviewed the then-new talk show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!", she wrote:
When 50 Cent explained that "Wanksta," the title of one of his new songs, is a rap term for a gangsta' poseur, Mr. Kimmel chimed in self-mockingly, "You mean pretending to be something you're not — like a talk-show host."
A week later, on Feb. 6, Lola Ogunnaike profiled 50 Cent and mentioned the song twice:
"Wanksta," 50's hit single from the "8 Mile" soundtrack, is receiving heavy radio play. … "Wanksta," a song ridiculing fake gangsters, is based on Ja Rule, 50 said. "He's never counted to anyone in the hood."
Alessandra Stanley dropped the W-bomb again on Feb. 21, 2003, in a review of "Da Ali G Show," explaining that Sacha Baron Cohen's persona of Ali G was "a white gangsta rapper wannabe (also known as a wanksta)." Elvis Mitchell joined in on March 7, critiquing the movie "Bringing Down the House," wherein Steve Martin's WASPy character goes undercover in hiphop gear: "he slips into his Wanksta stage." Finally, on April 18, 2004, music critic Kelefa Sanneh quoted some rap lyrics from Lil' Flip: "One time for all my gangstas, two bullets for them wankstas…"
So how did the word suddenly become "unprintable"? Perhaps some editor at the Times took a look at the song's Wikipedia page, where it's explained that wanksta is a portmanteau word, blending wanker and gangsta. Then another click over to wanker reveals that it is a "pejorative term of English origin" that "literally means 'one who wanks (masturbates).'" [Update: See comments below for evidence that Wikipedia's derivation of wanksta is incorrect.]
But wait! In the past, wanker hasn't been deemed unprintable in the Times either, though it might depend on who uses the word (and where it appears in the paper). In his Jan. 12, 1997 "On Language" column, William Safire dissects an outburst from Tony Blair (then Britain's Labor Party leader) in which he said, "Who are these unreconstructed wankers?" After quoting Magnus Linklater of The Times of London as wondering whether his editor would permit the use of the W-word in print, Safire observes:
The editor did, as editors here do on occasion, because the use of a vulgarism by a prominent and respectable political figure — rather than by an entertainer or other celebrity — invites reporting (perhaps with secret glee) on the fact of its use in the most august publications.
In his column, Safire details the history of this "slang noun not widely understood in America," quoting from the OED's definition and citations. (The OED Supplement originally warned, "This word and its derivatives are not in polite use.") After Safire's exegesis, wanker showed up a few more times in the Times Book Review and the Sunday Magazine, though apparently not since 1999.
It's possible that the Times editors have decided that, in the case of wanker and its putative hiphop variation wanksta, the onanistic origin is now too transparent to dare offending American readers. The word wanker certainly has become more popular in the U.S. in recent years. As evidence, see Lynne Murphy's "Words of the Year 2006" on her always entertaining "Separated by a Common Language" blog. Wanker won in the category "Most Useful Import from British English to American English." Lynne writes that the word "has been sneaking into American popular culture under the radar for some years," but in 2006 wanker "came into its own" in American usage, with political bloggers tossing around variants such as wankiest, wankerism, wank-fest, and wankery.
None of these wank-words would presumably be acceptable to the current Times editors — unless, of course, the speaker is a "prominent and respectable political figure" (and not a best-selling rapper, God forbid).