Annals of Euphemism: That "intervening ungenteel participle"

« previous post | next post »

Several people have written to me about the obituaries for Vincent Musetto, the author of the famous NY Post headline "Headless Body in Topless Bar".  My favorite is by Margalit Fox ("Vincent Musetto, 74, Dies; Wrote ‘Headless’ Headline of Ageless Fame", NYT 6/9/2015), who points out that

The corresponding headline in The New York Times that day proclaimed, genteelly, “Owner of a Bar Shot to Death; Suspect Is Held.” Headlessness was not mentioned until the third paragraph; toplessness not at all.

The best thing about Ms. Fox's obituary is her contribution to the annals of euphemism, NYT style. As we've pointed out in more than a dozen earlier posts (listed in "The Gray Lady gets coy again", 4/21/2013), that newpaper's policy about "coarse language" poses a problem for writers:

Discussion about an expletive does not end with the decision against using it. The Times also forgoes offensive or coy hints. An article should not seem to be saying, “Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me.”

So how to deal with the backstory of the "'Headless' Headline of Ageless Fame", in which for a painful moment it seemed that the bar might not be topless after all, and Vincent Musetto almost lost the "the greatest fucking headline of my career"? Having prepared the way by referring to the headline's "verbless audacity, arresting parallel adjectives and forceful trochaic slams", Ms. Fox doesn't miss a beat:

As several former colleagues have recalled over the years, Mr. Musetto’s headline almost did not come to be. That April day, as deadline loomed in the newsroom, it occurred to someone that the bar in question might not actually be topless.

“It’s gotta be a topless bar!” Mr. Musetto cried, as his former colleague Charlie Carillo wrote for The Huffington Post in 2012. “This is the greatest headline of my career!” (As quoted by Mr. Carillo, there was an intervening, ungenteel participle between “greatest” and “headline.”)

Margalit Fox,  as Wikipedia informs us, "attended Barnard College in New York City and then Stony Brook University, where she completed her bachelor's degree (1982) and then master's degree in linguistics in 1983". So I'll add this to my list of things to tell undergraduates when they ask me what a degree in linguistics might be good for.


  1. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

    I'm somewhat surprised to learn that the NYT apparently does not consider hell and damn to be "religious oaths" (whereas goddamn presumably is).

  2. DWalker said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 3:27 pm

    "Ungenteel" is a weird word. I would have said:

    … there was a coarse word between "greatest" and "headline".

    "intervening" is redundant since he says "between".

  3. Chris Henrich said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    Our attitudes about what is or is not mentionable are staunchly resistant to any logic. (I think Montaigne pointed this out.) On any sense of what the words mean, hell and damn are very much worse than fuck. Can anyone explain this to the NYT?

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    I like "ungenteel" as used here but I think it might run afoul of the "no coy hints" policy. It certainly can be fairly read as a signal that the taboo being complied with is objectively silly.

  5. Mark Mandel said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

    @Chris Henrich: But plainly taboo has no direct link to semantics.

  6. Michael Leddy said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 6:22 pm

    To my mind, the worst Times moment concerning obscenity is Michiko Kakutani’s silent rewriting of a line from Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”: “They mess you up, your mum and dad.” Kakutani gives the reader no indication that mess is not what Larkin wrote.

    [(myl) For details, see "Larkin v. the Gray Lady", 4/16/2012.]

  7. Bloix said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

    In genteel speech throughout the 20th century, it was perfectly acceptable to discuss hellfire and the manner in which a person might wind up there. But it was utterly unacceptable, in polite mixed company, to do more than vaguely hint at the transaction that produces human offspring.

  8. Ray said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 8:26 pm

    in today's click-buzzed genteel speech: "Vincent Musetto, 74, Dies; You Won't Believe What Happens Next"

  9. JABailey said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 8:44 pm

    I wonder if this locution is conscious nod to (and corrective rewriting of) the use of "obscene gerund" as a punchline in one of the 1985 Doonesbury strips about Sinatra's honorary doctorate?

  10. Gunnar H said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 6:37 am

    @MIchael Leddy:

    Perhaps the solution for the NYT should be a standard annotation mark similar but opposite in meaning to [sic]. I have no Latin; what would the negation of sic erat scriptum be?

    Although it presumably makes no sense in Latin, I would suggest [snic], which suggests "snigger" and (in Swedish) "snicksnack" (nonsense, bullshit).

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 6:52 am

    @ DWalker

    I respectfully disagree that the "intervening" is redundant.

    Bare "between" would imply that the position of said ungenteel participle was culturally neutral: the preceding "intervening" additionally implies that its very presence was improper. Similarly, the use of the deliberately precious "ungenteel" rather than the blunter "coarse" is in keeping with the overall stylistic tone of the parenthetical observation, which is (to my perception) intentionally humorous.

  12. Michael Leddy said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 9:24 am

    @ Gunnar H:

    I still think there’s a problem in rewriting what’s presented in quotation marks. If the Times refuses to print the word, the standard “f—” could substitute. My objection is that the Times review purports that “mess you up” is what Larkin wrote.

    I wrote about this “mess” in a blog post, 4/9/2012 — I didn’t realize it was also covered here.

  13. Gunnar H said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 7:08 am

    @Michael Leddy:

    Well, that's why I suggested (mostly in jest) that they could benefit from a standard notation for indicating that a quotation has been bowdlerized or otherwise altered. The NYT bans partially blanked-out obscenities, presumably out of concern that a word "hidden" behind such a transparent veil will still offend some readers, so "f—" will not do.

    Of course, they could just use "[redacted]," "[unprintable]," "[expletive]" or something of the sort, which I would personally find less intrusive than the extended talking-around the word writers have to engage in instead (or outright falsifying quotations, obviously). Or better yet, get the fuck over themselves already.

  14. Bloix said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

    IMHO, bowdlerizing is fine for athletes, not fine for poets.

  15. David Fried said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    Further to DWalker and Terry Hunt:

    I don't think "intervened" is redundant either. But I would have written "An ungenteel participle intervened between "greatest" and "headline" in accordance with the preference for active verbs so often decried in these columns. And yeah, I think Margalit Fox was deliberately sending up the gentility of the Times by her choice of words.

  16. Peter Schult said,

    June 17, 2015 @ 5:31 pm

    Margalit Fox, as Wikipedia informs us, "attended Barnard College in New York City and then Stony Brook University, where she completed her bachelor's degree (1982) and then master's degree in linguistics in 1983". So I'll add this to my list of things to tell undergraduates when they ask me what a degree in linguistics might be good for.

    She has also published 2 language related books:

    Talking hands : what sign language reveals about the mind
    The riddle of the labyrinth : the quest to crack an ancient code

    I have read and enjoyed the latter of the 2, which goes into the roles each of Arthur J. Evans, Alice Kober, and Michael Ventris played in the decipherment of Linear B with a particular focus on Ms. Kober's contribution.

RSS feed for comments on this post