Annals of Bowdlerization: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Peter Baker, "How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan", New York Times, 12/5/2009:

The leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s Nov. 6 cable stirred another storm within the administration because the cable had been requested by the White House. The National Security Council had told the ambassador to put his views in writing. But someone else then passed word of the cable to reporters in what some in the process took to be a calculated attempt to head off a big troop buildup.

The cable stunned some in the military. The reaction at the Pentagon, said one official, was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — military slang for an expression of shock. Among the officers caught off guard were General McChrystal and his staff, for whom the cable was “a complete surprise,” said another official, even though the commander and the ambassador meet three times a week.

"Military slang for an expression of shock". Right.

WTF is apparently on the NYT no-no list, since the archives since 1981 yield only one hit:

And the link for that hit is dead. (There are plenty of examples of WTF in blogs, online comments, and The Local. But it's quaintly endearing that when it comes to print, the Gray Lady continues to hold the line against ordinary acronymic allusions to taboo words.)

[Update: for some relevant discussion, see Ben Zimmer's post "The inherent ambiguity of 'WTF'", 9/24/2009.]


  1. Lance said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    I'm actually not entirely sure what the skeptical "Right" refers to–Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is military slang for an expression of shock. (It expresses that shock with an acronym for a phrase including a NYT-unprintable word, but it's an expression of shock all the same.) They could have said "military slang for WTF", but that wouldn't necessarily be transparent to all their readers. So how else should they have explained the official's quote?

    [(myl) Well, they could have written something like "military phonetic alphabet for WTF" — trusting that the percentage of their audience who don't know what WTF means is probably similar to the percentage who don't know some of the other terms used without explanation in the article, like "bell curve" or "domino theory".]

  2. Q. Pheevr said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    "Why the face"?!

  3. Lance said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

    I was confused by "Why the face" too, Q–if it's not obvious from context (it wasn't obvious to me), the NYT is quoting a character from the new TV show "Modern Family", who's unintentionally displaying his cluelessness about internet slang.

  4. Dierk said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 4:18 pm

    WTF is an expression of shock, never seen it used that way? I understand it more as an expression of disbelief, massive incredulity, bewilderment mixed in with a large dose of disgust. No shock in there.

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

    We had some discussion of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" in the comments on my post, "The inherent ambiguity of 'WTF'." It's also come up recently on the American Dialect Society listserv.

  6. B. Johnson said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    It may be of interest that when this story was covered by NPR News, the reporter or editor chose to partially disambiguate the phonetic acronym: "what the [silence]?"

  7. Ingrid Jakobsen said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    In my part of the online community, (which does have some military links), "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is a reasonably common way of writing WTF, so the article is transparent to me. But I don't of course know how common that is.

  8. Larry Sheldon said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

    Eons ago I work in a telephone company office that handled long-haul telegraph circuits.

    When an item of equipment failed the people on the testboard patched in a spare and wrote a trouble ticket on the failed equipment.

    More often than not the trouble ticket would come marked "NTF" (No Trouble Found) or "CC" for Came Clear [while testing].

    And, more often than not, the item would fail again and the cycle would repeat. After awhile the we on the testboard would recognize the item as one we had reported many times before and tired of writing a lengthy description of what had gone wrong and would simply write "AFU" on the ticket–or maybe we would write "NFG"….

    One day I was in the equipment room for something and the tool crib girl hollered at me–it turns out that she had been assigned the task of sorting tickets by trouble reported.

    She picked up one middling large stack and asked me what "AFU" meant.

    Since I could get fired for uttering an obscenity within the earshot of a female employee (this was the 1960's) I, ever quick on my feet said "All Fouled up".

    The she picked up the stack of "NFG"s……which I said meant the same thing as "AFU".

  9. bfwebster said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 1:36 am

    Actually, I would have liked to have seen the NYT attempt to explain the far more common military acronym "Charlie Foxtrot" (or sometimes the more expressive, if ethnically insensitive, "Mike Charlie Foxtrot"). ..bruce..

  10. Matthew said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    But you know, these polite substitutes achieve a certain opacity, even idiomaticity over time. Someone ended a meeting last year with "well, I've shot my wad" and nobody blinked but me. My mother, for whom the F-word is the devil made flesh, doesn't shy from the "freaking" intensifier. And who hears anything obscene anymore in expressions like "screwed up" or "we got screwed" or "shafted"? Screw is almost perfectly fungible with the F-word in all it's phrasal verb forms.

    So why not just skip over the military alphabet transliteration and say what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot really means? It's an expression of shock, disbelief, massive incredulity, bewilderment mixed in with a large dose of disgust. Why the fuss?

    Why why the face? Imagine a brutal punch or other blow to the face. WTF! It is also an entirely plausible expansion of the abbreviation. I propose the label acrocorn.

  11. JimG said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    Today's pet peeve is about people who use words without knowing what they mean. WTF comes out of a culture in which the F part is routinely used, and thus carries little shock value. WTF is a relatively simple interrogative or expression of bemusement. The kids who picked it up have the sense correct. The folks whose blood pressure spikes when somebody drops an F-bomb are the ones who misunderstand and attribute shock or disgust where none was intended.
    William Safire once interpreted the phrase "going ballistic" to mean some sort of rapidly rising over-reacting anger. He didn't understand that the rapid acceleration comes during a rocket's boost phase, and going ballistic is when the rocket cuts off and the missile coasts along its established path. WTF comes from the real ballistic phase of the conversation.

  12. DylanL said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    My pet peeve of the day is pet peeves.

  13. dwmacg said,

    December 8, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

    @ Matthew,

    Good point about how these things change. When my sisters were young, they were told not to use "Gee" since it was short for "Jesus". By the time me and my brother came along that particular dam had burst.

    Another example: a peever peeved to the Washington Post recently about using the word "fubar", but as far as I know no one complains about "snafu".

  14. jimc said,

    December 9, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

    This immediately reminds me of:

  15. John Burgess said,

    December 10, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    When I lived in London in the mid-90s, there was a cafe in Chelsea by the name of Charlie Foxtrot. The owner, ex-UK military, made no excuses for the name.

  16. Initialistic avoidance « Arnold Zwicky's Blog said,

    December 13, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    […] Federation of Wisconsin, to avoid the associations of "WTF". And then Mark Liberman caught a second-level avoidance, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot", and observed that the New York Times […]

  17. Andy said,

    December 15, 2009 @ 12:20 am

    Agree with Dierck – Often "disgusted puzzlement" or "disdainful incomprehension" more than "shock"

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