The first "asshole" in the Times?

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In "Larkin v. the Gray Lady," Mark Liberman credits a Language Log reader with pointing out that "the NYT printed asshole for the first time 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.”

But this wasn't, in fact, the first time that asshole graced the pages of the Times. That verbal transgression was pioneered, like so many others, by Richard Nixon in the Watergate tapes.

As I discussed in the 2006 post "Taking shit from the president," New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal decided that Nixon's swearing in the transcripts of the Watergate tapes was newsworthy enough for the Times to lift its ban on certain obscenities — most notably shit, which appeared in the paper on July 10, 1974 (in a transcript of a conversation Nixon had with his aides on March 22, 1973: "I don't give a shit what happens, I want you all to stonewall it"). About a month later, the Times printed the transcript of another conversation, this one dating to June 23, 1972, between Nixon and H.R. Haldeman. (This would come to be known as the "smoking gun tape" — transcript and audio here.) At one point, Nixon says to Haldeman: "He didn't know how it was going to be handled though — with Dahlberg and the Texans and so forth? Well who was the asshole that did? Is it Liddy? Is that the fellow? He must be a little nuts." ("Dahlberg" is GOP fundraiser Kenneth Dahlberg, whose check to the Nixon campaign had ended up paying off the Watergate burglars. "Liddy," of course, is G. Gordon Liddy.) Here's how it appeared on page 14 of the Aug. 6, 1974 issue of the Times:

As Geoff Nunberg noted in a 2008 post, the Times opted against printing asshole when it was used by George W. Bush in a live-mike moment to describe their own reporter, Adam Clymer (actually, Bush called him a "major-league asshole"). I'm looking forward to Geoff's forthcoming book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, for further illuminations on asshole usage and journalistic proscriptions against it.


  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:03 am

    This is why I don't understand the NYT's policy at all. In the first Nixon quote, how is the swearing newsworthy, other than that it's the president doing it? It doesn't add anything to the story, which is the stonewalling, that a synonym or [expletive deleted] wouldn't convey. Whereas in the 2008 incident, the swearing is the news. If it's not important enough to quote accurately, don't run the story at all.

  2. h. s. gudnason said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 11:28 am

    @Ginger Yellow

    The Clymer incident was actually in 2000. It was Geoff Nunberg's LL posting that happened in 2008.

    That doesn't detract from your point.

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 12:04 pm

    It's not that the Times believes its readers are not adults, it's that the Times editors are themselves not adults. And as Dick Cavett said, "Censorship feeds the dirty mind more than the four-letter word itself."

  4. fev said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    In the next column over, Nixon is credited with the phrase made famous by the transcripts:

    P Well, I don't give a (expletive deleted) about the lira.

    Even within the same text, there are limits beyond which the Times dare not put its stockinged toe

    [(bgz) These are the official White House transcripts of the Watergate tapes, which rather famously had their expletives deleted before being released publicly. So you can't pin that one on the Times.]

  5. GeorgeW said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    They are on that slippery slope: transcript > quote > writing. :-)

  6. Michael Lydon said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

    Very interesting. The continuous eroding of the taboos against using "dirty words" in the media is, I think, a phenomenon like the tide against smoking or the tide for sexual equality of all inclinations: huge and positive changes in the culture. I saw it first in movies in the 1970s around the time of Blazing Saddles. NYPD Blue in the 90s marked a new level of dirty word use. A few weeks ago in the Times Magazine I saw "fart" again and again. To me, this is great: a general acceptance of the fact that this is how people talk, and really no one minds.

  7. Mark F. said,

    April 16, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

    People do mind. You may not like the sort of people who mind, but they're out there, and they're people too. (And I have the impression they're prone to write letters to newspaper editors.)

    In fact, maybe I'm one of them. Personally I find the more taboo words grating, unpleasant, and evocative of hostility. That doesn't mean the newspapers shouldn't quote them when people use them, but also it seems reasonable for newspapers to have standards of courtesy to the reader.

    Not that I'm all that bothered with, say, the laisser-faire stance of the New Yorker or, for that matter, this blog. But I guess I am a little bothered. Every use of "fucking" or whatever has a kind of in-your-face quality to me. Putting them in book title, especially so.

    OTOH, the New Yorker is my favorite magazine, and this is my favorite blog.

  8. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    I hope it's not too OT but all this public non-deletion of expletives reminds me of (if you'll excuse an almost 50-year-old memory) the famous use of 'fuck' by Kenneth Tynan in the mid-sixties in Britain. Caused quite a stir at the time (IIRC questions in the House and letters to the Queen of all people), and the following great exchange, between a comedian called Jimmy Tarbuck and someone (or some thing, it might have been a fox puppet???) who introduced him as Jimmy Tarbrush.
    JT: "No! No! 'Buck', it's 'buck'!"
    Fox: "You can't say that on television. Only Kenneth Tynan can."

  9. un malpaso said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 10:32 am

    Ah, Nixon. The American id. Proud wielder of the nation's hidden obscenities.

  10. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    @ richard howland-bolton – The fox puppet is likely to have been Basil Brush, as per the picture at the bottom of this article.

    On puppetry – although "arsehole" is considered rather rude in Britain, "arse" by itself isn't particularly; Lord Charles, Ray Alan's ventriloquist puppet famous on British TV from the 1960s on, had as his catchphrase "You silly arse", and in front of the children, too.

    The Times (of London) recently had a discussion on rude words in its Feedback/reader's editor section, though it is behind a paywall. A reader had raised an issue of consistency in asterisking:

    "Sebastian Biddlecombe has something he wants to get off his chest — an “irregularity” in Saturday’s Times. “Caitlin Moran says in her Magazine column that: ‘You’re essentially saying you’re a liberal — but with big tits.’ This contrasts with the Review, in which Rihanna is quoted as saying: ‘If my t**s aren’t feeling big one day, too bad.’ ”

    "Mr Biddlecombe wants to know if we have a list of words which must be asterisked, “to avoid insulting the reader and lowering the tone of the newspaper” and, if so, is “tits” on it?"

  11. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Apolgies – in my previous post is the article with a pic of Jimmy Tarbuck and Basil Brush.

    (I suppose this is known issue, but if I try to make an tag link using a URL with a number at the end, that link and a lot of following text disappears; adding a slash after the number made the text appear correctly in the body of the post, but then the link itself was incorrect).

  12. MikeM said,

    April 17, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

    Interesting item in the NY Times, in talking about the relationship between Julian Assange and the Russian network where he has a talk show: "Of course, practically speaking, Mr. Assange is in bed with the Kremlin, but on Tuesday’s show he didn’t put out." Now there's a first for the Gray Lady!

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 18, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    @Nicholas Waller: Often links work in "reality" that didn't work in the preview. Let's see whether this one works. (It doesn't in the preview.)

    I had no idea that ending with a number was involved.

  14. Graeme said,

    April 24, 2012 @ 11:22 pm

    I love it when papers still use random keystrokes to censor, eg f#%!
    To me it invokes the chaotic in what is otherwise banal language.
    Do eds think it is less offensive than f___, where prudish eyes automatically fill in the blanks?

    Good example of redacting the Australian PM:–rudd-that-is-20100607-xnv5.html

    The real story for Australians was not that a politician loved profanity, but that our then PM would use an obscure, to us, Americanism like 'ratfuck', and about the Chinese government to boot (a Mandarin speaker, ex diplomat, the PM was typecast as a Sinophile).

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