Wankerism in The Times

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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.

(For more on the Times' shifting standards on "prominent" vulgarisms, see my posts "Presidential expletive watch" and "Taking shit from the president," and Arnold Zwicky's "The NYT transgresses.")

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).

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22 Comments »

  1. Dave Buchwald said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 2:07 am

    Fuck. That's what Wanksta means. I'm going to stop saying it stat.

  2. Jim said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 2:42 am

    Interesting. Initially I'd assumed the w came by way of white, in parallel with the term wigger. Of course, literally applied that would lead to wangster, which is hardly any better…

  3. Rubrick said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    They won't print wanker? Bugger that!

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 6:59 am

    Related trivia: see Wankh versus Wannek, an account of the discussions surrounding the title of Jack Vance's 1969 SF novel Servants of the Wankh.

  5. gordonoz said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    By extension, `wanker' means a pretentious person, particularly in the Arts, or, in leadership roles, one who gives out bullshit. `Wanky' is a very useful adjective when reviewing (informally of course) a piece of drama or art that the creator most probably considers to be `experimental', but which fails to engage the audience.

  6. mollymooly said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    Apparently, Wankers Corner, Oregon was exploiting its name to sell T-shirts in the 90s, so there was some awareness before 2006.

  7. mgh said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 9:51 am

    I have to go further back in the New York Times's archives to find "jack off" as a meaningful phrase (in the music listings of Nov. 28 1997, "Jack Off Jill, which opens the show, is the dirty-rock equivalent of rubber-doll revenge. Three women and one androgynous man play impossibly crude soundtracks for slashing pornographers' throats. DJ Liquid Food also performs.")

    I can't find any examples of "jerk off" as a meaningful phrase, although "jerk" seems to be used freely — not only when quoting Sen. McCain.

  8. Bob said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 11:23 am

    There is an episode of The Simpsons in which U2 is a guest star. On two occasions in the episode, someone calls a band member a "wanker" as an under-the-breath aside. The episode is frequently syndicated in America, but I happened to catch it in London once and found that those two lines had been cut. It struck me as odd, because I'd never known English television to be too concerned with censoring language.

  9. Mr. Shiny & New said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 11:33 am

    I've seen, in the same newspaper, an article where someone says "fuck" multiple times in quoted dialogue, but on a different page a movie with "fuck" in the title has the title censored. And it wasn't someone important saying that unprintable word, it was an actor or singer. I think this sort of thing just depends on the writer of the article. As for editors… these days they seem to do less than they used to.

  10. S Onosson said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

    I believe that "wank" and its derivatives have been fairly well known up here in Canada for some time (as a musician, I hear the term "wanking" frequently employed to refer to excessive improvisation/soloing). Perhaps this has been spilling across the border?

  11. Sarah said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 1:05 pm

    One of my favourite uses is of the root word itself during an episode of Black Books, a British comedy my girlfriend and I both love.

    The female protagonist (a shop owner) looks reflectively around at all of the things she has on sale and announces: "I do sell a lot of wank, don't I?"

    Love it. Good word.

  12. dan said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    Isn't "wanker" a fairly accepted colloquial term in Australian English? I have a vague memory of seeing Paul Hogan's character Leo Wanker character when I was a teenager and laughing uncontrollably for at least a few seconds – small pleasures…

  13. dan said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    And in response to Bob's point about The Simpsons episode with U2 – who are, incidentally, pretty much the definition of wank – Channel 4 got into trouble for not bleeping the word last month and broadcasting it pre-watershed, to among others my 6 year-olds. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jun/09/channel4.ofcom
    D'oh!

  14. Janice Huth Byer said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

    The NYT has acted, in this case, like a negative stereotype of its affectionate nickname, The Old Gray Lady.

    Being an old woman for real puts me in a demographic editors might worry about offending, but, of course, what's truly offensive is being teased by missing words. One or two asterisks would seem to be enough to protect the vocabularies of the tender-aged.

  15. Robert Coren said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    Safire's remark about a willingness on some editors' part to quote "vulgarisms" when used by political figures reminds me of a news article I was quite startled to read in the Boston Globe at least 25 years ago; it recounted an altercation between two Boston City Councillors, and quoted each of them, without ellipsis, asterisks, or any coyness whatever, as calling the other "a fucking asshole". This is not customary for the Globe even today, and I'm guessing that some editor slipped up.

  16. John said,

    July 6, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    S Onosson said,
    I hear the term "wanking" frequently employed to refer to excessive improvisation/soloing).

    In my youth I played in many bands where any excessively long and technical rock guitar solo was referred to as "fretwanking". A good way of bringing your lead guitarist's ego back to a reasonable size.

  17. Ray Girvan said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 7:44 am

    gordonz: a piece of drama or art that the creator most probably considers to be `experimental', but which fails to engage the audience

    Artwank, in fact.

  18. Kate Gladstone said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 10:03 am

    Hmmmm … could we call William Safire (and others who make a living as puristic alleged experts on words, English, and language in general) "wordwankers"?

    By the way … I've noticed that the "leave a comments" page on Language Log asks people to leave a "URI" (not a "URL") … can I ask to have this fixed (without facing condemnation as a wordwanker myself)?

  19. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 11:22 am

    To Kate Gladstone: URI vs. URL is a techie thing; there's a brief discussion here. The stipulation of "URI" is one of the things that comes with the WordPress platform — like "Comments off" and "Share and enjoy", which people have complained about on occasion.

  20. JakeT said,

    July 7, 2008 @ 11:32 am

    Like John, I've always/only known "wanking" or "wankery" to mean "playing gratitutous solos only to prove how good a guitar player you are."

    Of course, it's always, at the same time, carried mastubatory overtones.

  21. Evan said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

    I really doubt the etymology involves "wanker" in any way. I don't think a rapper who wears a bullet-proof vest to all his shows would know the meaning of "wanker", or want to use British slang even if he did know what it meant.

    In my opinion the 'w' comes from "wannabe" and the 'k' comes from the pronunciation of "gangsta".

  22. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    July 11, 2008 @ 1:40 am

    Evan: You may well be right. I just dug up this interview of 50 Cent by Jake Arnott in the Observer Music Monthly:

    JA: And another claim to fame: you introduced the word 'wanksta' into the language with your track 'Wanksta'. That word sort of means something in England – does it mean the same in America?

    50: Nah, nah! 'Wanksta's like… we use that terminology to mean a fake gangster. When people told me about the word 'wanker'…

    JA: You know there's a hand signal that goes with that?

    50: I was told. That blew me away!

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