Expurgating the Facebook fugitive

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Adrian Bailey passes along an interesting bit of editorial excision that appeared in a Washington Post article about Craig "Lazie" Lynch, who recently escaped from a prison outside of in Suffolk, England. Lynch has been leaving taunting messages on his Facebook page. The Post quotes Lynch as follows:

"I had a funny feelin that my door was going to come off this mornin," he wrote in one smug post guaranteed to torque law enforcement officials everywhere. "Then I remembered the [police] are thick as [dung]. And went back to sleep."

The bracketed terms "police" and "dung" have been inserted into the quote for different reasons. Here is what was in the original Facebook post, according to The Mirror:

Good 'mornin' everyone. I had a funny feelin that my door was going to come off this 'mornin'. Then I remembered the old bill are thick as shit. And went back to sleep.

So the first substitution by the Post was explanatory, since American readers wouldn't be expected to recognize "the old Bill" as slang for "the police." London's Metropolitan Police website has a whole page devoted to theories on the origin of (the) old Bill, and the latest OED draft entry provides this etymological note:

The character of Old Bill was created by the British cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) and appeared in issues of Bystander from 1915 onwards.
The origin of sense 2 is uncertain. It may have arisen from subsequent use of the cartoon character, depicted in police uniform, on posters in a Metropolitan Police recruitment campaign of 1917, and later during the Second World War (1939-45) giving advice on wartime security. Among other explanations that have been suggested are that it is from the association of police officers prior to the Second World War with ‘Old Bill’ moustaches; from the ‘bill’ (BILL n.1 2b, also BILLY n.2 1b) used as a weapon by 18th-cent. constables; or from the registration letters BYL originally used on cars belonging to the Flying Squad.

The OED has citations for sense 2a ('a police officer') from 1958 and sense 2b ('The police force; police officers collectively, freq. with the') from 1970.

The second expurgation is of the bowdlerizing variety, replacing "shit" with "[dung]." It's an odd substitution — more typically we would see something like "s***" (as indeed the Mirror printed it). But perhaps the first substitution, "[police]" for "old bill," encouraged the Post editors to follow suit by using a polite synonym for shit.

Without having seen the original text, however, one wouldn't know that the edits have different motivations. That might lead to some head-scratching among readers, wondering if the original word behind "[police]" might be some sort of obscenity, rather than British slang opaque to Americans. It's yet another interpretive pitfall in taboo avoidance strategies of the newsroom.


  1. Słowosław said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    Sorry to go off topic, but I found it interesting that the prison is described as being "outside of Suffolk". To my eyes it looks like they're saying that the prison is in another (unspecified) county (according to the report in other news sources it is in fact in Suffolk). Is this phrase particular to the US or is this just an instance of what Friday does to me?

  2. Thomas Westgard said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:38 am

    What's really amusing is that the papers are willing to reprint the words of an escaped criminal mocking the police, but God forbid he use the word "shit," because that's too much of an assault against society to participate in.

  3. Tom said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:51 am

    That "outside of Suffolk" bit seems like an American misunderstanding to me; presumably the author, unfamiliar with UK geography, took Suffolk to be a town rather than a county. I'm rather surprised that "thick" meaning stupid was left unexpurgated; is this sense of the word familiar to most Americans? I had assumed it was UK-only, maybe Commonwealth, slang.

  4. Słowosław said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    That makes sense actually. I really couldn't figure out how they got the exact opposite meaning (and wasn't trying to take the piss, which I now realise it might look like).

  5. Paul said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    By substituting for "old bill" the Post editors violated Associated Press style and probably their own style. AP style discourages bracketed additions to direct quotations and also directs that the original word should be retained in the case brackets are used.
    Also, it's irritating to the reader. I find myself wondering just what the speaker said.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:13 pm

    Is it worth mentioning that the second page of the article contains a (not obviously tongue-in-cheek) usage of "all of yall"?

  7. John said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    When I first read the quote, I thought of "thick" as "numerous". The second reading was as "stupid" of "slow witted". In the first reading, the implication is that they will catch the thief anyway, while the second is that there is no need to worry. Two great people divided by a common language!

  8. Q. Pheevr said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    The [filth] are thick as [filth].

  9. Tom said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    @John, your first reading of "numerous" makes perfect sense and yet I hadn't even considered that "thick" could mean that in this context! In the UK "thick as shit" is a common phrase meaning "extremely stupid" so it was definitely the intended meaning here, but I wonder if the journalist knew this or if her reading was the same as yours. If it was, it would explain why the word was (surprisingly to me) left in!

    Have UK/US dialect differences deepened to the point that the Washington Post needs to employ a translator to deal with transatlantic news? Maybe someone who knows what Suffolk is would be a good start.

  10. Ben Farnsworth said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    Thick means stupid in America, too. I mean, I probably wouldn't use it in a sentence like that but I'd never misunderstand it in that context. I'd probably be more likely to use "thick-headed" though, or "dense," but that's not really the same thing.

  11. kuri said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    "That might lead to some head-scratching among readers, wondering if the original word behind "[police]" might be some sort of obscenity, rather than British slang opaque to Americans."

    I wondered exactly that: was it something like "the fuckers are thick as shit," or is some sort of taboo slang used for "police" in the UK?

  12. Mark Anderson said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    This BrE reader guessed pigs and shit. What really had me scratching my head was the use of the word torque as a verb and not relating to the power of engines. I am still not entirely sure what it means here.

  13. Mr Punch said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

    Re: Suffolk — In the US, Suffolk is a county name in New York (most of Long Island) and Massachusetts (Boston), but in Virginia it is the name of a city. The fact that the Washington Post circulates in Virginia could have affected its understanding — Newsday or the Boston Globe might have handled this differently.

  14. peter said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    I read "torque" as a mis-typing of "taunt".

  15. dwmacg said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    I've seen "torque" as slang for "piss off", though I wouldn't have expected to see it used in a newspaper article–I'm guessing that it isn't consistent with the Post's style guide. I've resigned myself to the fact that it's going to be a long time before we see shit printed regularaly in a US newspaper, but I'm torqued that they replaced "old bill" with police, rather than glossing it.

  16. pjharvey said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    The substitution for 'police' could be an obscenity, of sorts. One has been mentioned, 'flith', but it could also have been 'pigs', either one being derogatory to the police force but understood by probably the majority of Brits.

  17. BlueBottle said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

    I've never seen “torque” used in that sense either, but given its rotational implications, I assumed it was a synonym for “wind up”

  18. dwmacg said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    To be a little more precise, I should say that I haven't seen "torque" used as a verb to mean "piss s.o. off", but I have seen "torqued" used as a participial adjective to mean "pissed off". So the use in the Post article is doubly surprising to me.

  19. Forrest said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 4:04 pm

    I had no trouble reading "thick" for "stupid." I rarely use the word in this sense myself, but it's common enough ( in Seattle, on the Pacific side of the US ) to be instantly recognizable.

    The idea that it ( "thick" ) could have meant so numerous as to make escape impossible, so that the fugitive gave up and went back to sleep, never occurred to me. Maybe the intro to this LL post biased me a bit in the right direction…?

    I tried to guess what [police] may have replaced, and the best I could come up with was "the pigs." "The fuckers are thick …" didn't seem right to me, probably because it's a little bit more ambiguous than a reporter might want to translate? I'm going on a limb guessing why I didn't think that replacement was plausible. Also, the idea of pairing pigs and shit seemed, well, appealing.

  20. John Cowan said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    I have no trouble with thick 'stupid' either, but thick as shit is an idiom, whereas thick as dung is not.

  21. Greg Morrow said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    'Torque off' is a fairly common synonym for "make angry" in my speech community (mostly hard-science over-educated, South Midlands US, with heavy net connectivity).

  22. empty said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

    I was briefly led astray by "thick as thieves".

  23. ignoramus said,

    January 8, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    Old Bill be a London Copper, old bill was the name of the billy club
    see OED :..highwayman's club; a bludgeon;

    Thus Old Bill never was noted by the betters as the nick name for the Men in blue by the unread.

    Thicke was the description of those that failed to get brain washed in the quad or just too dense for polite company.
    Now that in this the modern era the under class can mingle with the erudite, the betters will have have translators as more language from the lower fifth rises to the main media, via "texting".
    clod hopper.

  24. dhd said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    I always get a kick out of seeing pictures of anti-health care reform protestors in the US carrying signs that say "Kill the Bill". I wonder what they'd think if they knew they were inadvertently advocating cop killing? (I believe this slogan was heavily used in the Poll Tax Riots among other occasions in the UK)

  25. Paul said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    dwmacg said: "I've resigned myself to the fact that it's going to be a long time before we see shit printed regularaly in a US newspaper". Some of our British so-called newspapers have shit printed in them every day.

  26. Graeme said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    This fascinating discussion has me wondering: what's the metaphorical derivation of 'thick as shit'? Shit is thick as in sticky; it is also lowly, with the implication of dumb. 'Thick as two planks of wood' presumably predates.

  27. ChrisB said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:53 pm

    With appropriate caveats about Google counts, I note that "thick as shit" has about 150,000 google hits while "thick as pigshit", which is the idiom I would have thought of first, has about 250,000 hits. I suppose, though that to say that the pigs were thick as pigshit might be thought confusing.

  28. ChrisB said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 9:54 pm

    "Thick as two planks of wood", on the other hand, 80: "thick as two short planks", 750,000, a rather more definitive answer.

  29. dwmacg said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    @Paul: Good point. The same could be said about American newspapers.

  30. dwmacg said,

    January 11, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    As for "thick as shit", does it really have to have a metaphorical origin? In my dialect, at least, "shit" is an all-purpose comparative (dumb as shit, hot as shit, cold as shit, etc.), and I don't think there's any suggestion that shit always shares in some way the quality in question.

  31. Terry Towelling said,

    January 15, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    'Shit' isn't generally employed as an all-purpose comparative in England. Mr Lynch believes 'Old Bill' and 'shit' to be equally thick. To a British English speaker this is clear from the expansion – "as thick as Bernard Matthew's shit on Boxing Day".

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