Getting laid in the NYT (part 2)

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A while back I commented on the New York Times's reluctance to print "get laid" (even in quoted speech). Then it occurred to me to check out what the paper did with the movie Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987: directed by Stephen Frears, screenplay by Hanif Kureishi). And, surprise, it had no problem with the title back then; Vincent Canby did a review on 30 October 1987, and the title has appeared in the paper's pages a number of times since then (though some publications referred to it just as Sammy and Rosie). Then in 2005, in Ben Brantley's review of David Rabe's play Hurlyburly, we got 

It is a hangout for friends who want to get stoned, get sloshed, get laid.

And there's more, a lot more.

I have some idea about how this variability in practice could come about. It starts with an attempt to regulate publication practices rigidly: writers are expected to adhere to the prescribed practices, and editors are expected to correct them when they don't. But there are at least two problematic situations for this program of regulation.

In one, there are alternative styles used by different writers on different occasions, so that pretty much everyone is exposed to the alternatives, and many writers (and editors) will be expected to shift their practices from those they use, or used, on other occasions. In this situation, it can be very difficult for people to maintain perfect consistency, even on relatively "mechanical" choices (like the use of periods in abbreviations that are based on the intial letters of words); neither writers nor those who are reading for the purposes of editing can attend to all the choices in a text, since there are a vast number of them and they are clustered densely in every text. (Composition teachers marking essays for things they believe to be errors miss a great many.) In fact, it's reasonable to ask what the point of trying to adhere rigidly to certain prescriptions is.

(Note: I'm not talking about non-standardisms here, but choices between variants used by practiced writers in serious contexts.)

In the second situation, the prescriptions are either quite complex or not entirely clear or not easy to apply in some situations (usually two or more of these). Very few prescriptions are as simple as they first appear (see my discussion of periods in abbreviations-by-initials, linked to above); most of them have great areas of unclarity (see the discussion in this posting on what counts as a "passive" clause for usage critics); and it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a prescription even applies (distinguishing restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses can sometimes be a tricky business, as almost any copyeditor can tell you).

Almost always, the two problematic situations occur together. So it is with taboo expressions.

First, different publications have different policies about such expressions: don't ever print them, print them only in quoted speech to deprecate the speaker, print them only in quoted speech (of any kind), print them only in quoted speech or in the writer's own voice (for comic or expressive effect, for example), print them only when they  are mentioned rather than used. Different publications (sometimes, different departments of a single publication) have different preferences, and writers (and editors) move back and forth from one context to another. There's gonna be variation.

Second, what counts as a taboo expression differs from place to place and time to time, even in a single publication. If you're going to outlaw taboo expressions in English across the board, fuck, shit, and cunt will be outlaws, but things trail off after that. Is it ok to report the behavior of boorish sports fans who harass women by shouting "Show me hooter!" at them, and quote those words? Can you quote an athlete or a politician who cries out in victory, "We really kicked ass!"? Do you report an instance of the insult fag or faggot, or must you resort to circumlocution? And so on.

The NYT tries to be fastidious about these things — it took them years to get around to printing the word gay 'homosexual', after all — but there's no master list of forbidden expressions, and different editors draw their lines of decency in different places. We wrote here a while back about a writer who wasn't allowed to use the French noun merde, though it turned out that other editors had let the word pass (from the pen of William Safire, among others). Inconsistency is inevitable.

So we get free use of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, but coy avoidance of get laid in a report of a Russell Simmons interview.

[I'm assuming the Economist quoted Simmons accurately — mostly because in the context get laid would be hard to replace by something staider (score, get some, and get lucky would be rough equivalents, but no less colloquial). This is not the place for an essay on ways of talking about sexual connection, but the fact is that differen't expressions are hardly ever equivalent in context, so that paraphrase really doesn't work. (The re-wording with aphrodisiac is especially lame.) Of course, it's always possible that what Simmons said originally was not "get laid", but something like "get some pussy", and the Economist cleaned things up a bit. But if so, the Times writer wouldn't have known about that.]

We are now in the far ranges of taboo avoidance, moving from the avoidance of specific expressions to the avoidance of certain topics. Case in point: Neal Whitman posted to ADS-L on 13 November:

I also noticed that the ads [for Zack and Miri Make a Porno] (at least here in central Ohio) are trying to ditch the 'porno', and found this explanation:

"Remember how we told you that some markets refused to run advertisements for Kevin Smith's new R-Rated comedy Zack and Miri Make a Porno due to the word 'porno' being in the title? Well it appears that The Weinstein Co has altered the movie's title [to Zack and Miri] for some television spots in certain markets."

Now, the count noun porno 'pornographic film, pornographic magazine' (mentioned here on Language Log) surely is not itself a "dirty word", though its referents are things some people find offensive. So we seem to be dealing not with taboo-word avoidance, but with taboo-topic avoidance (though it would surely be a service to prospective viewers of the movie to let them know than a porn film plays a significant role in the enterprise).

Entertainingly, the NYT is ok with the full title of Zack and Miri, and the iTunes store — given to asterisking out all sorts of expressions, in a not very consistent fashion — is, at least at the moment, ok with porno (in, for instance, Porno for Pyros).

As we talked about here a while back, the iTunes store even asterisks out some — but not all — clinical terms in the sexual realm, among them penis, vagina, and masturbate/masturbation. As it happens, the NYT is ok with these "pvm" expressions, in The Vagina Monologues, in Puppetry of the Penis, and of course in health and medical stories.

All of this dodging about is supposed to be in the name of protecting children (though some of it is probably a way of avoiding fines or lawsuits or just objections, which are in turn usually justified as a way of protecting children). The Times occasionally trots out the defense that it is a "family newspaper", but it's hard to take that seriously as a characterization of a publication that has no cartoons, no personal-advice columns (like "Ann Landers" or "Dear Abby"), no puzzles for kids, no horoscope, and almost no celebunews. But the Times doesn't shy away from topics that many people would prefer to shield children from — rape, torture, sexual slavery, suicide, hate crimes, child abuse, serial killings, mass murder, and much more — or even from stories on "intimate" sexual topics, so long as they are treated in neutral language — teenage pregnancy, extramarital sex, oral sex, contraception, abortion, pornography, infertility, erectile disfunction, homosexuality, and so on. Nor should it.

No one should imagine that any children who happen to be reading the Times are being shielded from unpleasant realities and intimate matters. They're being shielded from bits of language — granted, bits of language, some of which are widely considered to be infused with bad magic. Still, it's hard to see how things like get laid and porno got pulled into this dark orbit.

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