Holy s***! J-school punchy prose?

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Yesterday's Missoulian, reporting on a non-shy mountain lion that was hanging around a campground in western Montana, had the following memorable sentence: `The kids were playing and Gerhard was stashing something in the minivan when her cousin hollered, "Holy (appropriate word under the circumstances), that's a mountain lion!"'  So the newspaper's editors don't want to print a classic four-letter cuss word, but surely there's a way to keep the sentence from sounding quite so silly?  Even "s***" wouldn't look as ridiculous as "(appropriate word under the circumstances)".  Better yet, they could just give up their aversion to including vulgarities in direct quotations.

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21 Comments »

  1. JAK said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    I agree. It is a bit silly, but you have to give it to them for humor :-)

  2. Cirec said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    Perhaps they were also shooting for a self-deprecating pun: a '(wholly) appropriate word under the circumstances', but not quite appropriate enough for our editorial taboos.

  3. Circe said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

    Perhaps they were also shooting for a self-deprecating pun: a "(wholly) appropriate word under the circumstances", but not quite "appropriate" enough for their editorial taboos.

  4. jmcnair said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 6:52 pm

    Well, you _are_ assuming they said "Holy s***!" and not "Holy f***!"

  5. jan Rivera said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    Oh, come off it. The reporter's choice was amusing. Like a fig leaf, the use of [initial letter]*** merely draws attention to what it's meant to conceal.

  6. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

    I like the fronting of the appropriate word in the circumstances that is an inappropriate word when telling the story later in a family newspaper.

  7. John Lawler said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    How do we know it wasn't f***, or c**, or c***, or G**, or J****, or some other appropriate word under the circumstances?

    Precisely what are the appropriate words under this circumstance?

    And if you can tell, why blame the poor reporter, who undoubted would catch from their editor if they practiced good journalism and reported what people actually said?

  8. John Lawler said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

    – Note: Putting "appropriate word under the circumstance" inside angle brackets to indicate what the reporter would catch appears to make it invisible, which is really cool HTML.

  9. David Morris said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

    I can't wait for this to catch on in movie dialogues: "(Appropriate word in the circumstances) Reebok!" – Cuba Gooding Jnr's character in Jerry Maguire.

  10. Victoria Simmons said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    David Morris, there was a famous episode of "The X-Files"—I think it was "José Chung's From Outer Space"—in which there was a highly profane official whose obscenities were all rendered in dialogue as variations on "Bleep!"

  11. Steve said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    I like it. +10 for style, but -20 million for brevity.

  12. Jeroen Mostert said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 12:15 am

    60s: "Holy censored expletive, Batman!"
    90s: "Holy [censored expletive], Batman!"

  13. Azimuth said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 2:24 am

    "Holy [scat], that's a mountain lion!"

    Maybe not.

  14. david fried said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 2:45 am

    Surely the taboo is on its last legs when the reporter can cock a snook at it in this way, and the editors permit it. When was the last time your family newspaper referred to the word "shit" as "appropriate in the circumstances"? The NY Times would still say something like "common vulgarity denoting excrement." Now that is prissy.

    I used to live in Missoula, and the Missoulian once quoted something I wrote in a supposedly anonymous survey with this introduction: "A U of M law school professor, with an apparent attempt at humor, wrote . . . " Ouch! As you can see, it's always been a good newspaper.

  15. Nancy Jane Moore said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    Although I agree it's way past time for newspapers to stop being so prissy about cursing, I can't help but like "appropriate word under the circumstances." It's descriptive and it allows readers to exercise their imaginations. I plan to start using it on a regular basis — it's much more charming than "expletive deleted."

  16. Gav said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    The joke is an old one, on the same lines as:

    "… stated in emphatic language
    what he'd be before he'd stand it"

    but still mildly funny

  17. languagehat said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    I just ran across this amazing bit of subterfuge in Randall Garrett's "Look Out! Duck!" (Astounding Science Fiction, September 1957): "'Duck excrement,' said Dumbrowski, answering two questions with two syllables." Why "amazing"? Because ASF in those days was notorious for the puritanism enforced by its strong-willed editorial duo, John Campbell (the official editor) and Kay Tarrant, who did most of the actual copyediting. To quote Fred Pohl (from here):

    But Kay Tarrant, too, had impulses that went beyond the simple correction of faulty grammar, spelling or punctuation. She hated — hated! — smut. And she devoted her life to erasing every trace of it from the magazine.

    This, of course, had an effect on the corps of science-fiction writers, a sadly rowdy lot. The more troublesome ones initiated a contest to see who could get something bawdy past Kay Tarrant. Many of them tried. All saw their best inspirations slain on the copy desk until George O. Smith stepped up to the plate. He won when he got past Miss Tarrant’s eagle eye his definition of a tomcat as “a ball-bearing mousetrap.”

    She must have been asleep at the wheel when she was working on Garrett's MS.

  18. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    It does the job well given the constraints. Immediately suggests the most probable words (shit or crap) and calls metalinguistic attention to the taboo in an amusing way. I guess one can draw different inferences about the writer's intention in using this technique, but for me the length disparity between the taboo word and the metalinguistic description embedded in the quote suggested that the writer was poking fun a bit at the taboo.

    I suppose it could suggest to others a desperate and silly attempt to jump through some ridiculous hoops to avoid taboo, but as already pointed out, the taboo is not of the writer's making.

  19. Jef S said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

    It's tongue-in-cheek and pokes fun at the newspaper's own taboos, stating that this word was appropriate — was the right choice — and yet still not printing it. So the newspaper ends up printing a bit of an off-color joke, yet still without offending even one person's sensibilities (presumably). I think it's very clever and amusing: good writing; much more so than simply excising the word, or (I'd say) than simply leaving it in.

  20. Rubrick said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    This is an appropriate comment under the circumstances.

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    This is what happens when you find an appropriate word under the circumstances.

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