Has the style book changed?

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Reading Remy Tumin's article today discussing Stephen Colbert's guest appearance in Michael Moore's Broadway play ("Stephen Colbert Uses Profanity to Describe President Trump’s ‘Soul’", NYT 10/5/2017), I was struck by this passage:

“Trump keeps summoning monsters of abstraction — things that aren’t real — they’re extensions of the ordinary, fears that you have that he plays on,” Mr. Colbert said. “

He wants to brush people into a corner where he can shine his feeble, fucking anemic firefly of a soul,” Mr. Colbert continued, inching his two pointer fingers close together.

What struck me was not my failure to understand Colbert's metaphor — perhaps someone will explain it to me in the comments — but the fact that the NYT chose to quote it.

In 2006, A.O. Scott had to review the documentary Fuck as "****" ("No Way To Put This Delicately"). In 2007, Kalefah Saneh reviewed a performance by Fucked Up, referring to it only as a band whose "name won’t be printed in these pages, not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake" ("Music Review: *******"). And in 2012, Michiko Kakutuni had  to bowdlerize Philip Larkin's most famous line, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad", as "They mess you up, your mum and dad" (see "Larkin vs. the Gray Lady").

These writers — and many others over the years — weren't allowed to use things like "F***" or "f***" or  "F***ed up", much less the full forms, because the NYT style book mandates that

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.” Generally that principle rules out telltale strings of hyphens or dashes. . . . Editors may sparingly allow paraphrase of a term, if it truly sheds light on a serious question. . . . Finally, editors may permit [expletive] or [epithet] in a quotation. . . .

As the 2007 suggested, there have always been occasional editorial exemptions from this policy, because of what Abe Rosenthal in 1974 called "Taking shit from the President" — this includes things like reprinting the Starr report in 1998 without removing Monica Lewinsky's quotation

So that would explain why a few months ago, the NYT editors allowed Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman to quote Anthony Scaramucci as calling Reince Priebus "a fucking paranoid schizophrenic"  ("Taking @*#$%! from the WH Communications Director", 7/28/2017).

Or has the relevant part of the style book changed? Apparently not in substance — at least, the 2015 edition describes essentially the same policy:

The Times writes unblushingly about sexual behavior, science, health, crime and similar subjects, opening its report to any newsworthy detail, provided the approach is dignified and the vocabulary clinical rather than coarse. In these situations, writers and editors avoid evasiveness and euphemism, which would be a disservice to readers who need to understand issues.

But The Times very rarely publishes obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones. In part the concern is for the news report’s welcome in classrooms and on breakfast tables in diverse communities nationwide. But there is a larger concern. The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes. The responsibility for maintaining The Times’s tone and avoiding obscenity and vulgarity begins with the writer. But if the writer and the original editor perceive a compelling argument for an exception, a discussion with the news desk or the standards editor is mandatory.

If the precise nature of an obscenity, vulgarity or other offensive expression is essential to the reader’s understanding of a newsworthy event — not merely to convey color or emotion — editors should consider using the term or a close paraphrase; readers should not be left uninformed or baffled about the nature of a significant controversy. In such cases, a single reference is generally enough to provide the information. (A similar standard applies to reporting of strongly offensive racial or other slurs.)

If, for example, a high-ranking government official uses a strong vulgarity to address a political rival in a public setting, readers may need to know the exact words to assess the behavior. By contrast, to convey a profile subject’s penchant for vulgar language, a general description will invariably suffice. The argument that reproducing a vulgar expression is necessary to convey atmosphere or intensity of feeling is not compelling.

The use of strong vulgarity in the name of a website, business, book or movie does not compel The Times to repeat it. Such blunt efforts to grab attention, while increasingly common, need not dictate The Times’s standards. If necessary, describe or paraphrase the name.

Do not use initial letters followed by dashes or asterisks as a thin disguise for a vulgarism. Instead, in most cases, offer a general description: a vulgar expression; a crude epithet; a vulgar sexual term. If more specificity is needed for comprehension, use a straightforward description or paraphrase: He used a crude term in place of “stuff”; She uttered a vulgar equivalent for “nonsense”; He used an offensive term for female genitalia. Avoid overly coy hints like It rhymes with….

Stephen Colbert and Michael Moore seem to be more in the Philip Larkin category than the Anthony Scaramucci category — neither one is "a high-ranking government official". I suppose that Colbert's appearance in Moore's play rates as  a "newsworthy event". But is the phrase "his feeble fucking anemic firefly of a soul" truly "essential to the reader’s understanding of a newsworthy event"?

So maybe the NYT will now "take shit about the president", not just "from the president", even when it's not in a quotation buried in a Justice Department report on presidential misconduct. Or maybe global social warming is gradually melting the Gray Lady's taboo vocabulary glacier?



  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    Okay, I think the corner Trump wants to brush people into is dark, where they'll look at and be grateful for the light Trump can produce from his soul, even though it's only intermittent and particularly dim like that from an anemic firefly. Those who aren't fearful enough for him to brush into the corner will be enlightened by the sun and moon of such souls as… well, I don't know who Colbert admires, but he could probably name some people.

    I like fireflies and I hardly ever see them here in New Mexico, so I wouldn't choose them as a comparison for any tangible or intangible part of someone I was animadverting on.

  2. MattF said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    Maybe what's newsworthy is Colbert's profanity– if so, that would require quoting it accurately. I also don't get the metaphor, except maybe as a rhetorical dogpile of negative qualities.

  3. John From Cincinnati said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 10:54 am

    In September the Theater section of the NYT ran a review of the play "Fucking A". The name of the play does not appear within the review, in the information box at the bottom of the page or in the article's URL. A week later in their recently launched initiative Reader Center | Bulletin Board they ran a column titled When We'll Recommend a Play, but Not Name It. It's here although it might be behind a paywall. It reports that

    "The majority of the comments on the review have been critical of our decision not to name the play; none praised us for our decision."

    The NYT Standards Editor, Philip B. Corbett, was quoted offering the following explanation.

    We have wrestled with this problem in various forms for years, and I admit this is far from a perfect solution. To be clear, we don't think our readers are naïve or exceptionally delicate, or will faint dead away at seeing a vulgar word. On the other hand, we strive over all for a tone that's thoughtful and civil. We've loosened up quite a bit in recent years and make exceptions in some cases, but we have still tried to keep a high bar for flat-out obscenities.

    The basic idea is that just because a playwright (or website owner, or rock band, etc.) wants to use an obscene name for their own purposes, we are not obligated to repeat it (you'd be surprised how often it comes up). At the same time, it's unfortunate if that makes it harder for our readers to find what they are looking for; we hope the link in the story helps on that front.

    Online comments to the Bulletin Board column did not, by and large, support the NYT position or Mr. Corbett's explanation.

  4. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 11:10 am

    Colbert saying "fucking" isn't that newsworthy; he says it frequently on his own show (twice in his monologue last night), though of course it's bleeped by CBS.

    On the other hand, Colbert is, ostensibly, running for President.

    That said, I'm curious to know which forbidden words the NYT considers "obscene", and which are merely "vulgar".

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 11:42 am

    I tend to agree with MattF's suggestion insofar as the phrasing of the headline seems to suggest that the utterance of profanity is itself what makes the story newsworthy (which suggests more leeway in the body of the story should be justified). But I also share Gregory Kusnick's puzzlement as to why that should be thought newsworthy. "Showbiz Personality Who Has Frequently Been Critical of Trump Said Another Thing Critical of Trump While Hanging Out With Another Showbiz Personality" strikes me as … Id on't know, what's the metaphor for "less newsworthy than dog-bites-man"?

  6. Yuval said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 11:42 am

    Why does a threshold need to be steep? Doesn't it only matter whether it's high or low?

    [(myl) There are several dying metaphors in which "steep" is used to mean something like "difficult" or just plain big, even though the metaphorical fit is somewhere between odd and backwards. For example, a task with a "steep learning curve" technically should be a case where people learn quickly, since a "learning curve" is a graph of performance as a function of training time — but this is exactly the opposite of how the phrase is used. Another example is "steep price", which doesn't seem to make any literal sense at all.]

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    I don't think I'd use "steep learning curve" to describe something that takes a long time to learn, but rather something that takes a lot of effort to learn — particularly if one is expected to come up to speed quickly.

  8. MikeA said,

    October 5, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

    I would consider a "steep price" to be one that starts low (First one's free) and quickly climbs to you wondering how many banks you have to rob each day.

    Also perplexed by "steep learning curve", but not as much as by "quantum leap" as it is usually used.

    Enough peeving for now.

  9. Keith said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 2:21 am

    I was more puzzled by "his two pointer fingers", rather than calling them his index fingers.

  10. ajay said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 4:51 am

    I don't think I'd use "steep learning curve" to describe something that takes a long time to learn, but rather something that takes a lot of effort to learn — particularly if one is expected to come up to speed quickly.

    Agreed – in fact, I'd generally use it to mean "you have to come up to speed quickly in this situation, and so you're going to have to work hard". A quick google around shows it used in exactly that sense while referring to graduate employment training schemes, George Bush after 9/11, and a rapidly improving professional cyclist. I'd be interested to see examples of where "steep learning curve" is actually used to mean "this skill will take you a long time to master".

    Most mentions of "shallow learning curve", meanwhile, seem to be people complaining about the supposed misuse of the phrase "steep learning curve"…

  11. ajay said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 4:55 am

    I was more puzzled by "his two pointer fingers", rather than calling them his index fingers.

    NYT house style is to use subtly awkward grammar and subtly wrong vocabulary. This is in large part a hangover from the early 20th century, the heyday of continental European philosophy and science, when educated Americans unintentionally became used to reading intellectually challenging material almost entirely in translation, and to hearing the best and the brightest in academia explaining their ideas in a variety of foreign accents. The NYT is doing the print equivalent of a Henry Kissinger accent in order to convey gravitas.

  12. richardelguru said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 6:16 am

    Ah, where is Kenneth Tynan when you need him.

  13. James Kabala said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 8:14 am

    ajay: Neither point nor index is Anglo-Saxon, both being derived from Latin, but I think the latter is more obviously Latinate. So an attempt to sound foreign seems unlikely.

  14. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 6, 2017 @ 10:28 am

    The basic idea is that just because a playwright (or website owner, or rock band, etc.) wants to use an obscene name for their own purposes, we are not obligated to repeat it (you'd be surprised how often it comes up)

    Sure, you're not obligated to repeat it. You could choose not to cover the work.But when you're reviewing something, it seems to me you are obligated to name it. If it's too uncivil even to name, then why are you writing about it at all, unless perhaps to warn people away?

  15. Rodger C said,

    October 7, 2017 @ 11:12 am

    So an attempt to sound foreign seems unlikely.

    What ajay is talking about, I think, is a no longer conscious attempt to sound like someone with an imperfect grasp of normal Anglophone idiom.

  16. Breffni said,

    October 8, 2017 @ 1:56 am

    MikeA: "quantum leap" has come up a few times in comments on Language Log. The point of the metaphor is the quality of the change, not the distance travelled: both literally and metaphorically, it refers to an "abrupt, discontinuous change of state", as Brett put it here.

  17. Andrew Usher said,

    October 8, 2017 @ 8:47 am

    Seems this must have just been a slip in their style, because there certainly can be nothing especially newsworthy about Colbert's profanity – or indeed the whole comment, except for the fact that it doesn't make any fucking sense. Really, shining one's soul, as a light source, into a 'corner' in which people are accumulated???

    Without getting too political, I can say that I am not generally an exalter of Trump (or any politician) nor a persistent critic of Colbert (or any genuine comedian).

    And to MikeA:
    "Steep price" is really a normal term to mean a high price, and one that's probably justified. As with myl's reply, I see no connection with literal steepness, yet I use the phrase too.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  18. Lane said,

    October 10, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    Philip Corbett, the Times's "standards editor", wrote to me in 2011 on the topic.


    Short version: no official change in policy, but unofficially more instances are being declared newsworthy enough to allow.

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