A few dollops of taboo avoidance

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We're been writing about taboo avoidance here on Language Log for years. It's an arena in which Faithfulness (reproducing an original faithfully) conflicts with a type of Well-Formedness (cleaving to some rule about what is "right", "correct", "appropriate", etc.). I've posted many times about such conflicts on Language Log (a list, probably incomplete, of my postings about Faith vs. WF can be found at the end of this posting) and will do so again. I mention it here only as a way of connecting taboo avoidance (and, for that matter, taboo use) to larger linguistic issues.

People send me potentially interesting examples all the time; I have many dozens of examples still not blogged on. Today I'm picking just three relatively recent cases, because they tickled me in one way or another.

Case 1. From earlier in the year (hat tip to Ned Deily), a posting by pianist and music critic Jeremy Denk (check him out, both the music and the writing). Denk was quoting an interview with Robert Craft in the "erudite magazine Areté":

Craft In 1911 Stravinsky sent the composer Maurice Delage a nude photograph of himself in profile, with the upwardly mobile nozzle prominently exposed, and during a vacation in his country residence, they were joined by the notoriously homosexual Prince Argutinsky, whose correspondence, still in private hands in Paris, is a major source untapped by Stephen Walsh. Stravinsky’s pride in his [scandalous word indicating male member] is most evident in a note to Diaghilev, responding to a letter from him in a depressed mood: “If I cannot help you with my music, what can I help you with? Despite my admiration for my male member, I am not willing to offer you consolation with it.” (22 February 1922: Biarritz.)

Areté Is “upwardly mobile” a metaphor meaning that his [scandalous word indicating male member] was capable of erection? Or that it was semi-erect, or “fluffed” for the photograph?

Craft Fluffed, I suspect. Tautening at any rate.

First we get the coyly metaphorical "upwardly mobile nozzle" for "his (semi-)erect penis" (nice distancing with the instead of his). This is a quotation from Craft; the taboo avoidance is his.

Then comes a point where Craft used a taboo word for 'penis' (cock, dick, prick, we can't tell which) and Areté demurely avoids quoting it, falling back instead on a characterization of the WORD, rather than the thing — though the magazine could have paraphrased Craft clinically ("pride in his [penis]") or euphemistically ("pride in his [male member]"). This is ostentatious avoidance, conveying that the word used was a "scandalous" one, one (or one of a few choices) the readers could supply on their own (and, perhaps, putting Craft down for his vulgarity). In addition, the magazine's characterization is doubly demure, since it avoids the clinical penis via the euphemistic male member (I'm almost surprised the magazine didn't go for membrum virile).

This, as  it turns out, is how Stravinsky himself is reported to have spoken about his penis in the letter to Diaghilev. But surely this letter wasn't written in English, so the expression "male member" didn't occur in it at all. Presumably Stravinsky used some Russian or French counterpart, and "male member" is Craft's translation in his edition of Stravinsky's letters. (This is where I bail out on scholarship. I'm not willing to spend a morning tracking down the original of the letter, to see what Stravinsky actually wrote.  In fact, in the context of the Areté interview, it's not really important, since what the magazine's readers are confronted with is the English euphemism "male member".)

The piling up of these three features — characterization of the word rather than the referent, marking the word as specifically "scandalous" ("pride in his [word indicating ...]" would have conveyed the meaning, though not the register), and using the euphemistic "male member" (whatever Stravinsky wrote in the original letter) — works to foreground the taboo character of what Croft said in the interview and display it ostentatiously. It's an entertaining effect, but it goes well beyond reporting what Craft said.

Case 2. On 8 August, blogger T. Nawrocki on One Poor Correspondent passed on a bit from the Chicago Tribune (Mark Lerner passed it on to me):

We're Summarily Rejected

Friend of OPC MJN sends along the following bit of creative editing from yesterday's Chicago Tribune, quoting chef Graham Elliot Bowles, describing his restaurant Graham Elliot:

"I think, 'Let's just be a fun restaurant with great food.' Noise isn't always a bad thing. My plates are from IKEA, and they're $2.99. You've got some [restaurant raters] that will include you only if you use high-quality silverware, fancy tablecloths—they've got checklists. Well, [I summarily reject] that. I'm not spending $95 on a plate so some critic will put me in his book."

This is the subtlest replacement of fuck in "fuck that" that I think I've ever seen, and it's a really nice contrast to what Areté did with the Craft interview, in that only the bracketing of "I summarily reject" indicates that the quotation is inexact, while the material inside of the brackets conveys the content of the original without screaming that the form of the original included a "scandalous word", a vulgarity. It's as unobtrusive as you can get without simply eliding that portion of the original. Maybe not everyone will get it, but some will glance over it and smile.

And some grin broadly. An anonymous commenter followed up:

Summary reject me? Summarily reject you! Mother sumarily rejecter.

(On "mother summarily rejecter", compare "oh, intercourse the penguin!" from Monty Python's Flying Circus, episode 22.)

There's a further linguistic point. The fuck of "Fuck that!" isn't a declarative use of the verb fuck (as reject in "I summarily reject that" is), nor is it even an imperative use (Jim McCawley's famous — in some circles — treatment of the fuck in "Fuck you!" labels it "imprecative", a verb mood "used to wish misfortune upon others", as Wikipedia puts it).

So the substitution of I summarily reject for fuck isn't a substitution of like for like, just as intercourse for fuck in the Monty Python quote isn't a substitution of like for like (a mass noun replaces a verb). Still, these substitutions work in context, and indeed the disparity between the original and its replacement makes the substitution funny.

Case 3. Finally, we get to Virginia Heffernan ("Kanye on Keyboards", NYT Magazine of 10 August, p. 16) coping — no easy task — with the flow of rapper Kanye West's writing:

[West’s] UniverseCity blog is chocked with impulsive aperçus, including a furious explanation of his (late and booed) appearance at the Bonnaroo music festival on June 15. “This is the most offended I’ve ever been,” he wrote, “this is the maddest I will ever be. I’m typing so” – he used an intensifier – “hard I might break my” – intensifier again – “Mac book Air!!!!!!!!”

Nothing really remarkable in the quotation style here, except that where Heffernan characterizes fuckin' as an "intensifier", almost anyone else (other than some linguists) would have labeled it an "expletive" (or "interjection"). Heffernan's usage shows some influence from linguistics, where intensifier actually has a relevant technical use.

A little background: the (sort of) technical term interjection has a very long history, but its primary use is for certain elements that are not fully integrated into sentences — certain "supplementary" elements, in the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. This usage is much too broad, and also too narrow, in that it excludes a large number of relevant elements that are in fact integrated into sentences, as modifiers:

The fuckin'/damn dog bit me again!

I worked fuckin'/damn hard.

I'll never fuckin' try THAT again.

Expletive has a different problem (setting aside a totally different use of the word as a technical term denoting existential markers, like the there of "There are fairies in the bottom of my garden"). As a (sort of) technical term, it's used for taboo items in general, regardless of their syntactic status. So it covers not only the above occurences of fuckin', which are adjectival and adverbial, but also clearly verbal (though sometimes idiomatic) uses of fuck:

Terry fucked me slowly and passionately for half an hour.

Kim fucked me over on that contract.

Go fuck yourself!

Fuck you!

and also nominal uses:

Sandy's a great fuck.

We had a long fuck on the beach.

I don't know what the fuck they were doing.

The fuck you are!

(and others as well).

As far as I know, the technical term intensifier in linguistics arose to denote a class of degree modifiers (expressions that syntactically modify adjectives or adverbs and also convey quantity semantics), namely those that have "upward-looking" semantics: very, hugely, really, pretty, and more. (Some degree modifiers are diminishers — hardly, a bit — and some are approximatives — almost, sort of — and there are other types as well.)

The point is that the classic intensifiers (whatever their syntactic category) are, in syntactic function, modifiers of both adjectives and adverbials:

It was a pretty/very long wait.

We waited pretty/very long.

Heffernan's use of intensifier is mostly in line with this use, except that she's extended it a bit, to cover modification of nominals as well, as in

my fuckin' Mac book Air

(where the semantics is merely expressive, not necessarily upward-looking). And she'd probably use intensifier to cover non-degree adverbial uses, as in:

I AM fuckin' doin' my best!

(where, again, the semantics is merely expressive, not necessarily upward-looking).

This is a purely terminological point. Intensifier has an established use in linguistics, somewhat narrower than Heffernan's use, but it's perfectly reasonable to extend the established use to cover a somewhat larger class. In technical contexts, all you have to is make it clear how you're using the terms. If you need to make a distinction, you could refer to intensifiers proper (for degree modifiers with upward-looking semantics) and something like intensifying modifiers (for modifiers with expressive content). Outside of technical contexts, intensifier evokes the intended meaning better than the techical-sounding alternatives expletive and interjection.

Writing for a non-professional audience isn't easy. I thought Heffernan's formulation navigated the shoals skillfully.

Appendix: Faith vs. WF on Language Log:

1/29/06: Dubious quotation marks

4/9/07: Ducky identity

8/1/07: Cousin of eggcorn

8/12/07: e e cummings and his iPod: Faith vs. WF again

9/21/07: Punctuational hypercorrection

3/23/08: Article-article article abstract


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