Annals of euphemism

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Sometimes the New York Times stylebook makes life hard for its writers, and interesting for those of its readers who like cloze tests. According to Michael Barbaro, "A Mood of Gloom Afflicts the Romney Campaign", NYT 9/18/2012:

A palpably gloomy and openly frustrated mood has begun to creep into Mr. Romney’s campaign for president. Well practiced in the art of lurching from public relations crisis to public relations crisis, his team seemed to reach its limit as it digested a ubiquitous set of video clips that showed their boss candidly describing nearly half of the country’s population as government-dependent “victims,” and saying that he would “kick the ball down the road” on the biggest foreign policy challenge of the past few decades, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Grim-faced aides acknowledged that it was an unusually dark moment, made worse by the self-inflicted, seemingly avoidable nature of the wound. In low-volume, out-of-the-way conversations, a few of them are now wondering whether victory is still possible and whether they are entering McCain-Palin ticket territory.

It may prove a fleeting anxiety: national polls show the race remains close, even though Mr. Romney trails in some key swing states.

Still, a flustered adviser, describing the mood, said that the campaign was turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase.

The New York Times stylebook goes beyond banning "obscene words" — it says that

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

But The Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones. […]

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 […]

As a result, Barbaro could not have given us hints like these:

… a flustered adviser, describing the mood, said that the campaign was turning into a colossal cluster-f___.


… a flustered adviser, describing the mood, said that the campaign was turning into one s___-storm after another.

Nor … Well, come on, we really need a hint. And we deserve one, I think — the nature of the unprintable metaphors used by Mr. Romney's advisors would tell us something how they see the situation.


  1. Margaret L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    I think the writer did give us a hint, in the use of the word "flustered." For me at least this primed "cluster-fuck" very strongly.

    If I'm right, I would guess that it was inadvertent, that the writer was simply experiencing the same priming in reverse.

  2. HP said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 7:16 am

    @Margaret: "Still, a flustered adviser clucked . . . ."

  3. MattF said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 7:26 am

    According to Google Ngram, 'clusterfuck' and 'shitstorm' are about equal in frequency. 'Colossal clusterfuck' and 'colossal shitstorm' are too low in frequency to graph. Interesting to note that both originated around 1960, with 'shitstorm' clearly leading until around 1990, when 'clusterfuck' had a sharp increase.

    [(myl) There are certainly other candidates for the advisor's "vulgar, unprintable phrase" as well — but I chose these two because one focuses on troubles that originate outside the campaign team's control, while the other emphasizes internal problems.]

  4. Q. Pheevr said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 7:40 am

    I rather like the idea of the flustered adviser actually saying, "This campaign is turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase." (But perhaps that level of accuracy in reporting speech is too much to expect.)

    [(myl) Yes, I'm looking forward to my next chance to say that something has become a vulgar, unprintable phrase. In fact, come to think of it, I could say that right now about the Times' policy on rendering taboo words.]

  5. Paige said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    My four-year-old niece is quite fond of the word "poop" right now, as are most kids that age. My sister has been trying to get her to quit using such "bathroom talk." The other day, I was with her (my niece) when she smelled something she didn't like. She wrinkled up her nose and announced: "That smells like bathroom talk!"

  6. Yet another John said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    And I rather like the idea that the adviser wanted to express the thought that the campaign was literally transforming itself into an obscene speech-act. That Romney and all his staff were somehow departing the physical world to enter a realm of idealized performative gestures and actually *become* the phrase "colossal clusterfuck."

    Now how would the NYT report something like that, I wonder…?

  7. John Lawler said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:00 am

    Just noticed that Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Beast blog has a different take on that sentence, and the NYT euphemism policy in general.

  8. Jeroen Mostert said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    This is outright deception, deplorable cryptospeak — I'm supposed to know that "a vulgar, unprintable phrase" is not in fact what the campaign is turning into, but a description of what the campaign is turning into? Without using quotes or brackets or anything?

    So "coy hints" are not allowed, but violating basic rules of semantics is. Neat! They could have written "a flustered adviser, describing the mood, used less refined language to say the campaign was turning into something distinctly unpleasant", but this is probably too coy. Or not coy enough.

    That said, political campaigns often do turn into one vulgar, unprintable phrase after another — yet that doesn't stop them from actually getting print. Obscenity's a relative thing.

  9. Sili said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    I like the policy.

    It's exactly like good jokes. Anything you can imagine is gonna be more fun and titillating than what was actually said.

  10. mgh said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    The Daily Show has a regular segment titled "Clusterf@#k [sic] to the White House," which may have helped (or reflected) the rise of that vulgar unpronounceable phrase in the political lexicon

  11. Michael Straight said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:41 am

    I too found this very confusing. My initial reading was that the adviser literally said "the campaign is turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase" and I spent a few moments trying to puzzle out what he was trying to say with this odd metaphor.

    Was he saying the campaign was shifting into a mode where the only talking points they have left are negative, nasty ones?

  12. John said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:43 am

    When I read the article, my best guess was "shitshow."

  13. Andy Averill said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    If we really want to talk about vulgarity, what could be more vulgar than using some silly euphemism in place of a venerable Anglo-Saxon term for an everyday bodily function? Very non-U. In the immortal words of Tallulah Bankhead, "I can say 'shit', darling, I'm a lady."

  14. boris said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    I actually think this example is the embodiment of the policy done right (minus the campaign turning into a phrase). The official was flustered and used an obscenity. This is exactly as much as we need to know without being offended.

  15. Rube said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

    I initially read that the campaign was turning into a vulgar, unprintable "phase", and kind of admired the source's spirit — things are shitty, but they'll get better.

  16. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Here are just a few more possible "unprintable phrase(s)" that might fill the bill; descriptive of the apparent devolution of the current Romney presidential campaign.

    1) , friggin' fuck-up.

    2) ,unmitigated fucking disaster.

    3) , fucking slow-mo train-wreck.

    4) , prolonged wet dream gone horribly wrong.

    However you slices it, it's still pretty friggin' bad news for the 'Mitt-ster', and his GOP minions come early November.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    "…provided the approach is dignified and the vocabulary clinical rather than coarse. In these situations, the paper rejects evasiveness and euphemism…"

    I'm not sure I agree with the implication that clinical terms aren't euphemisms. *double-checks number of negations*

    Also, in the spirit of HP's comment, I'd like to suggest, "A flustered adviser, describing the mood, said unprintably that the campaign was an orgy of frustrations."

  18. YM said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

    Another vote for 'clusterfuck', with 'screwed the pooch' thrown in.

  19. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    "the campaign was turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase."


    Just one?

  20. David Morris said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

    Of course, we all imagine the worst "vulgar, unprintable phrase" possible, whereas the speaker might really have used a mild-ish, run-of-the-mill but just vulgar and unprintable enough phrase.

    I had a "Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" moment and imagined that he said "joojooflop".

  21. Joe Green said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 6:53 pm

    @Paige: I'm baffled. What word would your sister prefer her daughter to use? "Poop" seems to me to be one of the least objectionable euphemisms, assuming we're ruling out "grown-up" words like faeces.

    @generally… I thought "phrase" must be a mis-print for "phase", although this doesn't sit well grammatically with "turning into". One could easily imagine the aide saying (literally) "the campaign has entered a vulgar phase" implying that people were spending too much time on insults and not enough on policy. (Oh no, wait, politicians do that all the time, don't they?)

    Clusterfuck? What on earth's that? It's not in (my) BrEng vernacular.

  22. Steve Morrison said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    I've recently seen "flustercluck" used a a euphemism for "clusterfuck", though that wouldn't have helped the hapless NYT writer.

  23. Mark F. said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    I'd call "clusterfuck" more of a word than a phrase. But maybe it's just a one-word phrase.

  24. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:24 pm

    @Joe Green – it means a disaster shared (and likely caused) by a large number of people, none exempted.

    It's using fuck in the sense of doom, ruin, or impending doom – as in "you said WHAT to your wife? You're fucked, buddy.".

  25. Rebecca said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 11:27 pm

    Like Q. Peever above, I also like the idea of the flustered adviser actually saying, "This campaign is turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase." It jibes with what I typically say when the obvious obscenity is off limits: "this campaign is turning into an adjectival disaster."

  26. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 3:53 am

    I just have a need to mention that Tallulah Bankhead (mentioned in Andy Averill's comment) was a fascinating, remarkable person. The 20s were crazy, but even by that standard she was very outré. She's a fount of delightfully naughty quotes. (Favorite: "My father told me about men and alcohol, but he didn't say anything about women and cocaine.")

    Also, a question: I'd an impression that clusterfuck had a US military, wartime origin (WWII?). (I've sort of associated it with snafu, so maybe I've formed the wrong impression.) Anyone know? Joe Green's unfamiliarity with it implies that it might be local to the US.

    [(myl) The OED says that it's "chiefly U.S.", and does attribute the "bungled or botched undertaking" sense to the U.S. military (in the Vietnam era), though apparently the term was used somewhat earlier in a less metaphorical sense, e.g.

    1965   E. Village Other Oct. 2/3   As soon as they legalize ‘pornies’ I'll be the first producer to hit the neighborhood theatres with my now in progress epic film titled ‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’!


  27. Andy Averill said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    First time I heard "clusterfuck" was as part of "Mongolian clusterfuck", which seems to have gone the way of Mexican standoff, Dutch treat, Chinese fire drill, etc.

  28. L said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 8:33 am

    Clusterfuck does have a definite military association, and I've heard vets use the euphemism Charlie Foxtrot. At least I think it's a euphemism.

    On the original topic, the reporter is probably too young to have written, "turning into an expletive deleted."

    Which, allowing for the poetically inverted word order, may very well be in progress.

  29. Sili said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 10:00 am



  30. Eric said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    As an fyi, there was a great podcast from slate called lexicon valley this week all about the rise of asshole as a word. One of the notes was that it was only used for the first time in the NYT last year when printing the George Zimmerman 911 transcript which he used to describe Treyvon Martin.

    [(myl) Not true, in fact: the first time was in 1974.]

  31. L said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    > 1965 E. Village Other Oct. 2/3 As soon as they legalize ‘pornies’

    That's an interesting usage – pornies – and a logical extension of movies and talkies. They might also have been called fuckies (though perhaps that's too restrictive – although now that I think about it they also sing in talkies, so no worries) and yet the language seems to have settled upon pornos instead.

    This was in 1965, when you probably couldn't even say "porn" on television.

    Even today it costs extra…..

  32. RP said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    Apart from its absurd meaning, to say that "the campaign was turning into a vulgar, unprintable phrase" has another downside: it is in breach of the NYT's stylebook, which was quoted above as stating that 'an article should not seem to be saying, “Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me"'.

    This is exactly what the article seems to be saying.

  33. James Wimberley said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Doesn't clusterfuck derive from cluster bombs, which were introduced during the Vietnam War? Otherwise it just suggests an orgy, illicit fun rather than disaster.
    I would like to improve on the other candidate, shitstorm, by bringing in the related picaresque images of the shit hit the fan and circular firing squad. The idea is that the campaign team are blaming each other for the mess they are simultaneously making worse. A shitfan circle?

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