The FCC, Fox News, and the modest New York Times

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As preface to today's taboo-language story, an Ariel Molvig cartoon from the latest New Yorker:

The story is a column by Adam Liptak in the Week in Review section of today's New York Times: "Must It Always Be About Sex?", about the word fuck, which the Times is committed to avoiding — so that if Liptak is going to report on a current U.S. Supreme Court case about this word, he has to do some deft side-stepping.


The piece begins:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court specializes in law, not lexicography. But it will soon have to consider the meaning of that most versatile of four-letter words.

The Oxford English Dictionary's three core entries on the word — noun, verb and interjection — are about six times as long as this article. That doesn't count about 30 derivations and compounds, all colorful and many recent. The nimble word, the dictionary tells us, can help express that a person is incompetent; that another is not be meddled with; that a situation has been botched; that one does not have the slightest clue; and, in a recent addition, that someone has enough money to be able to quit an unpleasant job.

You know the word I mean. [first avoidance]

A central question in the case of Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, to be argued Tuesday, is whether every permutation of the word evokes sex and thus runs afoul of indecency regulations, which prohibit the broadcasting of material that "depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs."

"Given its core meaning," the commission told the court, "any use of the word has a sexual connotation even if the word is not used literally."

Thus, when the pop star Bono emphasized his glee at receiving a Golden Globe award in 2003 by saying his victory was "really, really" — insert a form of the word here [second avoidance] — "brilliant," the commission contended there was a sexual element. So too when Cher, on another awards show, used the word to propose something that ought to be done to her critics [third avoidance].

And there was sex in the air, the commission said, when Nicole Richie, at a third awards show, veered from these scripted comments: "Have you ever tried to get cow manure out of a Prada purse? It's not so freaking simple." Ms. Richie did not say "manure," and she did not say "freaking." [fourth avoidance, plus an avoidance of shit]

Bono, Cher and Ms. Richie all made sexual references, and all were indecent, the commission says. "It hardly seems debatable," the commission wrote in 2006, "that the word's power to 'intensify' and offend derives from its implicit sexual meaning" as "one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit words for sexual activity in the English language."

A federal appeals court in New York disagreed with the commission, and so does OED lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, who concludes a discussion of the matter with the blunt "The outrage that the F.C.C. pretends to feel is false." (There is of course a remote possibility that the commissioners, or their staffs, hold to an extreme version of the Etymological Fallacy: an original, or at least significantly earlier, meaning, will persist forever and overshadow all other uses. I'm not denying that fuck counts as a "dirty word" in our culture, but that doesn't mean it always, or even usually, has sexual reference.)

You do have to admire Liptak's versatility in finding ways to avoid the word fuck.



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