Larkin v. the Gray Lady

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Michiko Kakutani, "A Master of Verse Spreads Bad Cheer", NYT 4/9/2012:

Many American readers know Larkin chiefly from his more darkly funny lines: “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(Which was rather late for me) —/Between the end of the ‘Chatterley’ ban/And the Beatles’ first LP” (from “Annus Mirabilis”). Or: They mess you up, “your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you” (from “This Be The Verse”).

What Larkin actually wrote in 1974 was darker, funnier, and more memorable:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Jan Freeman comments ("They f___ you up, those stylebook rules"):

… it's the Times, so of course she can't print the bad word in the poem. She can't even use the first letter — such hints are "offensive or coy." The rule is that "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."

Lane Greene suggests:

Grow up, NYT. Your readers are grown-ups. And if there are any children reading it, they are precocious ones who surely have heard this very common word.

For some ethnographic background, see "No fuckin' winking at the Times", 8/17/2005; "[Expletive discussed]", 7/1/2005; "Words that can't be printed in the NYT", 6/5/2006;  "Taking shit from the president", 7/16/2006; "Further annals of taboo avoidance", 10/4/2006; "The NYT transgresses", 8/23/2007;  "Music Review: ********", 11/13/2007;  "Times bowdlerizes column on Times bowdlerization", 7/12/2008; "Annals of Bowdlerization: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot", 12/6/2009; "The language of 'Mad Men' and the perils of self-expurgation", 7/22/2010; "Annals of [having sex] [feces]", 8/7/2010.

Update — a reader points out that the NYT printed asshole for the first time [oops — not quite] a couple of weeks ago ("Race, Tragedy and Outrage Collide After a Shot in Florida", 4/1/2012):

Mr. Zimmerman told the dispatcher that this “suspicious guy” was in his late teens, with something in his hands. He asked how long it would be before an officer arrived, because “these assholes, they always get away.”

This is presumably because the editors felt that the context in this case was sufficiently newsworthy. As Kelefa Sanneh noted in a 2007 NYT music review:

Pink Eyes is the lead roarer in a ferocious band from Toronto. What band? Well, the name won’t be printed in these pages, not unless an American president, or someone similar, says it by mistake. Suffice it to say that this is an unruly hardcore punk band with a name to match.

As Abe Rosenthal quipped in 1974, "We'll only take shit from the President". Apparently George Zimmerman counts as "someone similar" enough, these days, but Philip Larkin doesn't. Or maybe fuck needs to overcome a higher barrier of celebrity than asshole does.

Update #2 — The last panel of today's Doonesbury illustrates two different levels of bowdlerization:

Note that the Times' stylebook would not allow a reporter to euphemize the soldier's quotation as "the war's a freaking clusterfrig", but would mandate an more indirect euphemism like "… asserted emphatically that the war was not going well". And in the unlikely event that a soldier actually said "freaking clusterfrig", presumably the treatment would have to be the same.

Update #3 — Ben Zimmer points out that the first asshole in the Times actually dates to 1974, in the transcript of one of the Nixon tapes. And a quick search of the NYT archives yields several others, though generally in blogs and other online-only venues, e.g. Michael Burnham, "Embattled Van Jones Quits, but 'Czar' Debates Rage On", 9/9/2009:

On Sept. 1, the group began circulating a video of a California speech in which Jones calls Senate Republicans "assholes" for their legislative tactics. The comment — recorded last February before Jones joined the White House Council on Environmental Quality — was in response to an audience member who lamented that Democrats were less effective than Republicans in using their majority to pass energy legislation.

Jones' reply: "Well the answer to that is, they're assholes."

He added, "Now, I will say this: I can be an asshole, and some of us who are not Barack Hussein Obama, are going to have to start getting a little bit uppity."


  1. jaymc said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:16 am

    Looks like the New York Times consistently used an "[expletive]" substitution when reporting on George W. Bush's inadvertent broadcast of the phrase "major-league asshole" — a reference to one of the NYT's own reporters — on the campaign trail in 2000. Perhaps standards have changed since then?

  2. Picky said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    I don't litter my conversation with "fuck"; I use it in circumstances where I think it acceptable and pertinent. The word is only valuable because of its taboo. There is no reason why I and the New York Times should not make up our own minds about the circumstances, if any, in which we will use the word. If the NYT decides not to use it, that doesn't seem to me to open it up to charges of prissiness. It is speaking in public to a disparate audience whose tastes in these matters will be various. In similar circumstances I wouldn't use the word myself. But if it decides against, it shouldn't quote the poem. The bowdlerisation is horrible.

  3. Rachael said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    I remember attending a sermon on the topic of parents and children, in my first year at university. The sermon began with a recital of this poem – except it was "They screw you up". My friend and I exchanged a knowing smirk.
    Although even "screw" was quite brave for a sermon.

  4. GeorgeW said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    Maybe there is some intuitive scale or criteria that govern taboo-word usage. Obviously, the context and audience matter a lot. But, there may be others as well.

    As a child/teenager, I can recall that quotes were more acceptable than self-generated utterances (in 'polite' company). And, the more respectable the source, the more justification could be claimed. "I am just quoting (respectable) X."

    Also, it seems that more ostensibly inadvertent utterances in anger or pain are more acceptable than simple declarative statements.

  5. Alen Mathewson said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    Perhaps the issue could have been avoided by referencing the Liverpool poet Adrian Mitchell's sunnier parody of the poem which begins, "They tuck you up, your mum and dad …"

  6. Acilius said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    @Alen Mathewson: Thanks very much for mentioning Adrian Mitchell's parody, I just read it and found a much-needed laugh. So I included a link below:

  7. MattF said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 10:19 am

    I agree with Picky– the NYT can have whatever policy it likes about obscenity, but bowdlerizing Larkin's famous poem is a sin against the light.

  8. Dan T. said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    It just always seems so weird that the Times is way on the liberal side with regard to political opinions, but so staunchly conservative in its internal style.

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    Maybe there is some intuitive scale or criteria that govern taboo-word usage.

    The BBC has an official list of taboo words in order of offensiveness. LL has probably written about it in the past.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Dan T.: It just always seems so weird that the Times is way on the liberal side with regard to political opinions, but so staunchly conservative in its internal style.

    It's one of those "only Nixon can go to China" things.

  11. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    Some discussion, with more links, on my blog, here.

  12. Andy Averill said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

    @Dan T, some of us would disagree that the Times is all that liberal. I still haven't forgiven them for the cheerleading they did for the Iraq war.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    @Andy Averill:
    I agree. From 1961 through 1963, I worked for a small Ohio daily that was considerably more liberal than the Times is now.

  14. D.O. said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

    Why New York Times is not following the usual norm — if you insert something in what is supposed to be a direct quotation (maybe instead of something else), use brackets? Of course, they excluded the first line from the direct quotation and therefore made it a paraphrase, but it is also wrong. Replacing one word for offensiveness is not a paraphrase. It probably better to be qualified as (a mild form of) plagiarism.

  15. Mr Punch said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    In this instance, Kakutani assumes (explicitly) that readers know the poem, at least through the first line.

    The NYT is intermittently liberal, at best; not only did it push for the Iraq invasion, it covered up the Wilson-Plame episode and the anthrax story, led the charge on Whitewater, etc., etc. What it is, above all, is an establishment organ, and the establishment is not very far left.

  16. GeorgeW said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 7:15 pm

    I suspect that the NYT sees itself more as objective journalism as opposed to representing any political point of view.

  17. Larkin v. the Gray Lady | Follow Me Here… said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

    […] Language Log discusses the New York Times' relationship with obscenity. Update here.  […]

  18. WTM?!? « sweat and sprezzatura said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    […] Liberman responded with a fun piece on Language Log (Larkin v. the Gray Lady) about this and other taboo words at […]

  19. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    Sofa King low!!

  20. Dan Hemmens said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    I am reminded in a roundabout way of (I think?) a Fry and Laurie short that simply went:

    How does that poem go: "They bring you up, your mum and dad."

  21. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    At a lot of newspapers, taboo words generate customer complaints. There may be a lot of complaints, or there may be loud complainers even though they're a minority. The rules don't necessarily have anything to do with newsroom prissiness or lack thereof. Many rural papers may also be careful not to insult high school athletes in their midst.

    When readers range in age from eight to 80, some standards are determined by the audience. Photos with blood, dead bodies or deer, or taboo language may be similarly censored. See:
    Or the paper may go ahead and offend some readers:

    For more stories about various obscenities in newspapers, go to this post and read the post and the comments:

  22. Thomas Thurman said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    @Rachael: Indeed, the censorship is from the listeners and not the speaker. I once heard a sermon by the late Mark Ashton where he said, "And one of the most common philosophies about suffering is one I can't name from the pulpit, or people will complain at me, but it's called something like 'stuff happens'. And you know what I mean."

  23. Bloix said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 12:09 pm

    The whole point of the Larkin poem is that it says "fuck." The taboo had weakened quite a bit by '74 but when that poem was written it was a still a shocker. To a modern reader it may seem funny, but when I first read it I perceived it, I believe accurately, as filled with suppressed rage.

    So you simply shouldn't quote the poem if you feel that you can't say fuck. The Times' writers should understand that not being permitted to use certain words means that there are certain things that you can't say.

  24. ajay said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:29 am

    It just always seems so weird that the Times is way on the liberal side with regard to political opinions, but so staunchly conservative in its internal style.

    "We send our young men to drop liquid fire on women and children, but we won't allow them to write "fuck" on their airplanes – because that's obscene!"

    – Kurtz, in "Apocalypse Now"

  25. Josh K-sky said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 1:06 pm

    All internet discussions of Larkin should eventually wind up here.

  26. The Corrections « Views from Apipucos said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

    […] misbehaviour and senseless, petty cruelty arise from the very attempt to free oneself from the Larkinesque family curse, each member acting out his tragic part, to himself at once blind and most true. In this vision […]

  27. Media take a prim view of Pussy Riot | Old News said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    […] New York Times, which has a history of using demure language, kept its headline chaste, with this headline for their featured story: […]

  28. Media take a prim view of Pussy Riot | Let Me Tell You... said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    […] New York Times, which has a history of using demure language, kept its headline chaste, with this headline for their featured story: […]

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