The slide into the morass

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Letter to the editor in the July/August STANFORD magazine (from alumnus Bill O'Beirne '56), p. 6:

I am sorry to see STANFORD beginning the slide into the lowest-denomination morass of the common press and television. I do not appreciate the publication of Brian Inouye's article with the expletive undeleted. Sad to see the previously well-done magazine choosing to go down the tubes.

Here's the offending expletive in context, from senior Inouye's "Student Voice" column (May/June issue, p. 38, available on-line here) about being a B student in a demanding premed program:

Recently, over a beer-drenched table, some fraternity brothers and I discussed a biology exam. One guy was complaining about his A-minus after he had studied "so hard" for the test. Another was stressing out that he wouldn't get into med school because of his B-plus. When I tried to get some sympathy for my B, these two just scoffed, signified I had no hope, and returned to their whining. That's the problem with premeds: they make you feel like shit when you already feel like crap.

Inouye's figure struck me as effective and entirely "in character". I don't recall having heard the figure before, and googling on {"feel like shit when you already feel"} pulled up only two hits, Inouye's column and this item from a blog:

life is beautiful guys. dont take it for granted. even tho people will try to talk you down and make you feel like shit when you already feel like dying. ignore them.

Despite O'Beirne's assumption, shit is not a new thing in STANFORD magazine. If this is a slide into the morass, the magazine has been sliding for some time. Back in 2001 (July/August), in Taylor Antrim's interview "Pow!" with Kelley Puckett, of Batgirl comics fame, there's this quote from Puckett:

Puckett pays attention to the attention, but he knows these hard-core fans are particular and peculiar. "A lot of these guys have a role-playing-game mentality," he says. "They keep their own little official list of who can beat up who. It's really as bad as you think. I've just introduced this 17-year-old girl and said,"She can beat up everybody, and I don't give a shit what you think.'"

Then in 2002 (September/October), Jesse Oxfeld's interview "Family Man" with David Chase, of The Sopranos, is drenched with shit in quotes from Chase and Chris Albrecht:

Those talents led to Chase's thesis film, a fictional story about a gangster. Chase does not remember it fondly. "My thesis film was a parable—and stupid," he says. "It was sort of tongue-in-cheek, deconstructivist bullshit." 

The networks, Chase says, are "interested in giving answers instead of raising questions. I'm not a propagandist. I don’t have the answers for shit. But other people think they do. And other TV producers are very content to give people their view, their vision of whatever it is. I'm not."

[Albrecht] "But David was adamant that Tony kill the guy. I said, 'David, it's too early, the audience will hate him.' And David said, 'If he doesn’t kill the guy, the entire show is full of shit. Because in this situation, that man would kill that guy.'"

[Albrecht] "I think it was the moment where everybody went, 'Holy shit, we have never seen anything like this before.' And I also learned a big lesson in that exchange, which was: trust David Chase."

The next year (in the January/February 2003 issue) there was a feature story "Now Hear This" by Diane Rogers about the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, with an occurrence of shit not in material quoted from conversation:

Iron oxide is applied to tapes, for example, as an adhesive or binding agent. But if the compound is faulty, the oxide can adhere to the recording head as well, causing what’s known in archival parlance as "sticky-shit syndrome."

It's clear that STANFORD magazine is not given to deleting or concealing this particular expletive. Inouye's use of it was just the first occurrence O'Beirne noticed.

(As a side point, I note that O'Beirne apparently doesn't object to the word crap.)

I wonder what O'Beirne would recommend as a method for deleting the expletive. Obviously, not literally deleting the word, since that produces nonsense. Possibly by concealment, along the lines of:

they make you feel like [expletive deleted] when you already feel like crap.

they make you feel like s*** when you already feel like crap.

But as we've pointed out here many times, concealment just calls attention to the expletive, and what's communicated to the reader is exactly what's communicated by the unconcealed version. The concealed version is not actually more decorous in content than the unconcealed version; it merely avoids printing the offending word.

[Just in, from Joe Clark, on a related point: a link to an entry on Jason Kottke's blog on the entertainment value of "videos that bleep out ordinary words to make them seem profane", with links to a number of these.]

The only way to entirely avoid the offending word is to recast the sentence completely, using a different comparison, like the wimpy

they make you feel awful when you already feel bad.

or by simply asserting that premeds know how to make you feel awful (even "like crap", if crap isn't offensive). I don't at the moment have any really punchy alternative formulations.

Otherwise, O'Beirne's complaint is just the familiar decline-and-corruption trope.



  1. Jonathan said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    For me at least, the bitter humour of the line (which fits well with the article as a whole) comes from the fact that the meanings of "feeling like shit" and "feeling like crap" are largely overlapping, and yet the construction "make you feel X when you already feel Y" implies a significant difference between X and Y.

    This among other things would make it difficult to 'translate' into non-vulgar language – cf. the humourless "awful … bad" version, for example.

    Or maybe as a Brit.Eng. speaker I'm missing a nuance of meaning available in Am.Eng.? :)

  2. john riemann soong said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 3:49 pm

    The first time I read it, I thought the letter was complaining about the megazine censoring the expletive (e.g. "not choosing to print the expletive unmodified). Because that's what the mainstream media does, and indeed it's not very decorous. I would imagine a magazine of quality would have left it unmodified.

  3. Scott Schulz said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    It's not like any publication is thoroughly consistent in its editing of profanity anyway (as previously documented in LL posts on the NYT's various approaches over the years) . I was a columnist for the Stanford Daily for two semesters in the late '80's. I had some cuss-word or other redacted in one column, and so I wrote "b.s." in an ensuing column to avoid the transgression. That, of course, appeared as "bullshit" in print. If I contributed in my small way to the decline of Western Civilization down on the Farm, I'd like to thank the Academy for this honor.

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    July 14, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    Jonathan: No, they're the same in American English too. I suppose the emphasis implied comes from the conceptual redoubling; it seems worse to feel like shit and crap than to feel like crap alone. Of course it doesn't make sense, but does it really need to?

  5. outeast said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:44 am

    It's clear that it should have read 'feel like **** when you already feel like ****.' Using an obvious 'concealment' like 's***' would be ineffective as the word would be obvious (thus making it 'concealment' in name alone), whereas starring both expletives out altogether would provide hours of fun for all the family.

  6. hjælmer said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 6:35 am

    Oddly enough, the power of the phrase–for me at least–derives from the traditional unprintability of "shit," which is therefore so much worse than the printable "crap."

    Once "shit" becomes as socially acceptable as "crap," the phrase will be meaningless.

    That's not, however, an argument in favor of censorship. Lead us into the morass, says I!

  7. Rick S said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 11:21 am

    But as we've pointed out here many times, concealment just calls attention to the expletive, and what's communicated to the reader is exactly what's communicated by the unconcealed version.

    Well, not exactly. What's communicated semantically is the same, of course, but the concealment piggybacks a pragmatic intention on the part of the editors onto the original author's (or quoted person's) message: namely, that the publication recognizes the word to be taboo in formal registers.

    I think this is a good practice. The main value of taboo words is that we can use them to signal exceptional depth of feeling, as if our primal passion so overwhelms us that we momentarily forget our veneer of civility. This implication can only be maintained if the taboo is otherwise enforced.

    But the passion is the writer's/speaker's, not the editors', who therefore have a tension between their journalistic duty to report accurately and their social obligation to uphold the taboo. A partial concealment like "s***" is a perfect way to resolve this conflict, by both conveying the writer's/speaker's word and simultaneously supporting the taboo that empowers it. Conversely, printing the full word breaks the taboo, robbing it of its power and cheating the writer/speaker.

    You might argue that "everybody knows" the word is taboo in formal registers, so the editors are unnecessarily intruding on the writer. But how do we learn of and maintain this taboo? Isn't it largely by seeing the word censored in publications? How long could the taboo persist if it were consistently broken?

    Of course, this wasn't O'Beirne's complaint. He objected on something like moral grounds, which sounds childish to me. Nevertheless, morals are culturally determined, therefore a social convention, so ultimately the objection stems from the same root.

  8. "Q" the Enchanter said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    What chutzpah this Bill O'Beirne guy's got, complaining about shit while going on about how STANFORD is sliding into more ass.

  9. nprnncbl said,

    July 15, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Rick S-

    But how do we learn of and maintain this taboo? Isn't it largely by seeing the word censored in publications?

    So societies without widespread publication or literacy have no linguistic taboos? (Or, once again, am I missing sarcasm?)

    Although hjælmer put it in terms of printability, it's a taboo that's not limited to print; for instance, "shit" is among George Carlin's "Seven Words", but "crap" is not. Interestingly, though, "crap" gets 120,000,000 ghits, while "shit" gets 166,000,000. Are there any linguists in the house that could comment on frequency of use versus taboo status?

  10. Dan M. said,

    July 16, 2008 @ 12:23 am

    Hi, I'm just an amateur here, but I read the critical phrase and posing a very real distinction:

    To me, to feel like crap is to feel unwell, to be sick. While to feel like shit is a shorter version of feeling like chickenshit, which is to say, to feel like something insignificant.

    The claim, which certainly fits the context, is that the premeds have socially devalued the speaker, calling him unimportant, even when he is already feeling hurt and worried by the real significance, at least to himself, of his failure. I think an analogous interpretation can be given to the one other cited google hit for a similar phrase.

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