Have those creepy clowns been terrorizing your neighborhood this autumn? Kick ‘em in the seat of their oversized, particolored pants with this choice insult: assclown. To be sure, I’m certain we can all conjure up some far stronger words for those evil motherfuckers, but let’s have a closer look at this jester jibe.
The following is a guest post by Blake Eskin, an editor and writer who has kept track of expletive avoidance by the New York Times, with his Tumblr Fit to Print and the #fittoprint hashtag on Twitter.
Ben Zimmer called the dissemination of Donald Trump’s recorded conversation with Billy Bush a “watershed moment in public profanity,” since major news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times presented Trump’s remarks without bowdlerization. Even Times subscribers who avoid the internet and cable news had to confront the words “pussy” and “fuck” on Page One, above the fold and before the jump, on their way to the Saturday crossword.
Let’s compare this with how the Times handled the death of Keith Scott two weeks earlier.
The Old Gray Lady is a prude.
In a story about Samuel L. Jackson and the motherfucking snakes on his motherfucking plane, the New York Times mentions that he “unleashes a 13-letter epithet” without even giving the reader a first letter to go on. (Times readers, it is assumed, are prepared to solve crossword clues anywhere in the paper, even in a guide to what’s on TV.) In a story about someone being fired for swearing, the paper does not name or even hint at the swear, though it does accompany the story with a charming F-bomb illustration that I kind of want to hang in my dining room. Until last year, if Yankees or Mets fans chanted “bullshit” after a blown call, the Times would refer to this only as “a barnyard epithet.”
But this week, the New York Times published “fuck,” “bitch,” “tits,” and “pussy” without so much as a hyphen or asterisk to conceal their naughtiness.
So what the fuck is happening to the Times?
In a word: Trump.
It’s safe to say that October 7, 2016 will go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity. On this day, a recording emerged of the Republican nominee for president saying utterly reprehensible things about women, featuring no fewer than four taboo words: pussy, fuck, bitch, and tits. (His interlocutor threw in one more: shit.) And major news outlets had to decide whether they should transcribe the quotes verbatim, in some cases setting new precedents in how they handle such vocabulary.
Swearing has long been disreputable and in many ways still is. But it has never gone away, and (at the risk of confirmation bias) it seems more visible than ever. We see and hear it not just among friends, family and neighbours but at work, on the news, and in cultural media from billboard ads to high literature – albeit often euphemised. Are we living in a capital-A, fuckin’-A Age of Profanity?
Michael Adams, in his new book In Praise of Profanity (OUP, 2016) makes a persuasive case that we are. Though not a book about the history or science of profanity, it draws on both in aiming more immediately to examine and celebrate the swearing performance itself – the feeling, the experience, the phenomenon of profanity.