Times bowdlerizes column on Times bowdlerization

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A column in the Sunday New York Times from the newspaper's public editor Clark Hoyt is essential reading for anyone concerned with modern journalistic practices of taboo avoidance. Running under the headline "When to Quote Those Potty Mouths," the piece takes its cue from the Rev. Jesse Jackson's notorious comments about Sen. Barack Obama, recently caught on tape by Fox News. (See Mark Liberman's post "Political castration" for more on the incident.) The Times coverage didn't reveal what Jackson said exactly (and the Washington Post got away with saying that Jackson "wanted to castrate" Obama), but Hoyt pulls no punches:

For those curious about Jackson’s exact words — “I want to cut his nuts off” — The Post’s Web site provided a video link. The Times did not. (The Times agreed to an exception to its decision for this column because what he said is central to this discussion.)

The exception made by the Times editors was evidently good for one obscenity only, since Hoyt spends the rest of the column dancing around what the paper has and has not printed. Below I've provided a guide to the linguistic taboos Hoyt was forced to avoid, with relevant Language Log links.

After some thoughts on the late George Carlin, whose "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine was discussed in the Times though the words themselves were naturally omitted, Hoyt launches into an examination of the newspaper's track record on printing obscenities. "The Times does not always seem consistent in its decisions," Hoyt writes, and then enumerates the inconsistencies:

It would not print "nuts" last week but put "cojones" in a headline 10 years ago.

On November 1, 1998 (back in the pre-Language Log era), the Times Sunday Magazine published an article about a study determining that "trial lawyers have higher testosterone levels than their counterparts who toil outside the courtroom." The headline was "Juris Cojones."

The newspaper reviewed a rock band last fall without printing its name because it contained what is probably the most objectionable of Carlin’s seven words.

The name of the band in question is "Fucked Up," which the Times rendered as eight asterisks. See: "Music Review: ********" (LL, Nov. 13, 2007).

When Vice President Cheney used a variant of the same word on the floor of the Senate in 2004 to tell Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont what to do to himself, The Times again passed.

Cheney rather famously told Leahy, "Go fuck yourself" (sometimes stated more tersely as "Fuck yourself"). This was mentioned in a U.S. Court of Appeals decision about the FCC's rules on obscenity. In reporting on the decision, the Times referred to Cheney's exclamation as "an angry obscene version of 'get lost.'" See: "Taking no shit from judges" (LL, June 5, 2007).

But two years later, it did print another of Carlin’s words when President Bush told Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, what Syria needed to tell Hezbollah to knock off.

Bush told Blair, "What they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over." See: "Presidential expletive watch" (LL, July 17, 2006) and "Taking shit from the President" (LL, July 19, 2006).

The same word appeared last year in an article about a telephoned threat to Bernard Spitzer, whose son Eliot was then governor of New York.

A transcript of the call, believed to be from Republican political consultant Roger Stone, contained the line: "There is not a goddamn thing your phony, psycho, piece-of-shit son can do about it." See: "The NYT transgresses" (LL, Aug. 23, 2007).

The Times was back on the conservative side this year, ignoring a vulgarism by former President Bill Clinton in the middle of a rant about Todd Purdum, a writer for Vanity Fair.

Clinton called Purdum a "scumbag." (Huffington Post has the audio.) The Times ran two articles reporting on the outburst, but they merely said that Clinton called Purdum "sleazy," "slimy," and "dishonest." Language Log missed out on the Times coverage of the Clinton-Purdum incident, though a post from April 2006 ("Heated words about 'sauna'") did link to Jesse Sheidlower's edifying discussion of scumbag on Slate, after the word slipped into the Times crossword puzzle.

We here at Language Log Plaza will remain vigilant in monitoring Times taboos, even when the paper's own public editor is obliged to follow circuitous avoidance strategies.


  1. Ed said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 12:15 am

    the "scumbag" etymology was completely unfamiliar to me (i guess i'm one of the "younger speakers" Slate refers to), although not surprising if you stop and think about it. on my personal scale of profanity, "scumbag" ranks somewhere slightly lower than "crap". it only draws attention because it's more specific, and therefore more rarely used.

    also, the whole notion of censoring "nuts" took me aback. we've really come around to being completely backwards about this kind of thing (leaving aside literal cases like bleeping the "hole" of "asshole" rather than the "ass"). although maybe not appropriate in the most polite of company, to me "nuts" is one of the least marked options for me if i want to refer to that part of the body (the other would be "balls"). these also ranks very low on the profanity scale. i wouldn't be fazed at all if an elementary-school-age child used them, given that their only other options are euphemistic to the point of obscuring meaning.

    and finally, in this whole mix somehow "douchebag" has got off scot-free, i.e. uncensored in mainstream media. isn't it just the feminine analogue of "scumbag"? of course if it did get censored, i'm sure it would come out doucheBLEEP, just to fit the general pattern of absurdity.

  2. Harry said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    Last January, there was a controversy about racist bullying on the reality show Celebrity Big Brother, and Channel 4 put out a press release about a particular bleeped out word. The Daily Telegraph wrote this:

    Channel 4 was quick to clarify that Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a 'paki'.

    Which sort of implies that he would have been crossing a more serious line if he'd said 'paki' instead of 'cunt', but that nonetheless 'cunt' is more unprintable.

    To be fair, it would have been even more mysterious if they'd written

    Channel 4 was quick to clarify that Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ****.

    but presumably the NY Times would have put something like

    Channel 4 was quick to clarify that the bleeped word Jack used to refer to Shilpa was not a racial epithet.

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 10:27 am

    When Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges in San Francisco (1959 I think) the SF Chronicle reported that he had used "a ten-letter word." Breakfast tables all over the Bay Area were briefly enlivened by the spectacle of people counting on their fingers as they spelled out "cocksucker."

  4. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 1:56 pm

    I find the NY Times's own 'Potty Mouths' to be a much more objectionable phrase than any of the stuff they won't print.

  5. Joe Clark said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

    You need a new tag or category just for NYT bowdlerizations, please.

  6. Don Davis said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

    NY Times Public Editor on Jesse Jackson Story: Paper’s 'Obscenity Policy' is F**ked Up


  7. blahedo said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:55 am

    @Ed: My favourite example of unexpectedly backwards bleeping is that it's now near-universal to hear the word/phrase "goddamn" bleeped as "***damn". My first, jarring interpretation of this was that "God" was vulgar but "damn" wasn't? Shouldn't it be "God****"?

    Of course what's really going on there is that using the name of God there is blasphemy, even more objectionable to many Christians (and quite probably others, though I don't know) than general vulgarity. Still, surprising at first.

  8. outeast said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 5:05 am

    I'm surprised to see that ****** is considered 'the most objectionable of Carlin’s seven words'. I thought that was ****.

  9. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:27 am

    @ Outeast:

    Are you referring to **** or to ****?

    Regarding George Carlin, shouldn't '**********' be hyphenated: '****-******', or is it merely optional?

  10. John Cowan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:32 am

    The general tendency in hyphenating noun compounds is to move from two words to a hyphenated word to an unhyphenated word. (Not all compounds complete this path, of course.) So what was originally "**** ******" may have gone through a stage as "****-******" before becoming universally "**********".

  11. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 10:42 am

    Universally "**********"? Do you think they write "**********" in other parts of the Universe? Is this what is meant by the laws of physics?

  12. Greg said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

    Absolutely! A ********** on Earth is a ********** anywhere else, whether or not there is a **** around for the person to properly utilize. It is commonly referred to as the Second Law of *********** Dynamics. I don't think it is necessary for me to remind you what the first and third such laws are.

  13. Doctor Deaf said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 12:34 pm

    @ Greg, You may have to remind me. I'm not certain *********** even works in a vacuum.

  14. Alixtii said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

    Does one need to actually ******** to be a **********? And if so, is one instance of *********** sufficient, all does there need to be a pattern of repeated ***********? Surely these questions must be worked out before it's decided whether *********** works in a vacuum.

  15. Peter said,

    August 3, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    I went back to the choice to check one of your quotes, because I had difficulty parsing it: "President Bush told Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, what Syria needed to tell Hezbollah to knock off."

    Surely that should be "that Syria needed" etc? That alteration of one character has the two virtues of being coherent with the verbatim quote of Bush's statement and of not implying that Bush was trying to suggest targets for a terrorist organisation.

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