On August 8, “bullshit” made its first appearance in the New York Times.
Two caveats are in order. First, I’m talking about the Times’ domestic print edition. The word has been used many times in Reuters articles posted to the paper’s website, several times in its own online blogs and articles, and at least once in the international print edition, in a quotation from Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father:
I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years. Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it … And if the high didn’t solve whatever it was that was getting you down, it could at least help you laugh at the world’s ongoing folly and see through all the hypocrisy and bullshit and cheap moralism.
Second, on two previous occasions, in 1977 and 2007, the Times had printed “‘bullshit'”–that is, had included the word in a quotation. The first instance is notable for the early date and also because it came in a column by John B. Oakes, who was not only the editorial page editor but also the nephew of Adolph Ochs, who bought the newspaper in 1896 and transformed it from an undistinguished daily to a major international news organization.
It was Ochs who adopted the Times’ motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print”; the sentiment behind those words, of course, is the reason the paper has been loath to print “bullshit.” This has led to various permutations and euphemisms. In 1970, the legendary reporter J. Anthony Lukas was covering the trial of the Chicago Seven. In response to a police officer’s testimony, one of the defendants, David Dellinger, shouted out, “Bullshit!” Lukas knew the ejaculation was relevant, striking, and dramatic, but his editors, mindful of the motto, wouldn’t let him use it. Lukas’s solution was to characterize the term as “a barnyard epithet.”
Incidentally, although Lukas is commonly credited with inventing the euphemism, a contributor to the Linguistlist listserv found a 1960 use in an Iowa newspaper: “But we trust that behind the scenes they are doing something more realistic. They might, for instance, remind Mr. K. [Nikita Khrushchev] that his barnyard epithets are hardly conducive to friendly talks.”
In any case, the formulation is elegant and has proved durable, especially in the Times, where it has appeared 87 times. Most recently, the paper last year referred to “a report that an Obama administration official used a barnyard epithet defying Hebrew translation to refer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
But “barnyard epithet” has a problem. It could refer to one of three things, each of which is slightly different: bullshit, horseshit, and chickenshit. (The Times has never used “horseshit,” and “chickenshit” has appeared once, in an online posting.) Bullshit and horseshit are admittedly similar, but the former can have a praiseworthy connotation — as in “bullshit artist” — the latter lacks. “Chickenshit” — which was the word used by the Obama administration official — has two different meanings. The first refers to cowardice and the second, a favorite of World War II soldiers, was memorably adumbrated by Paul Fussell in his book Wartime:
Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant “paying off of old scores”; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances.
The Times’s decorum on this issue led to awkward moments, notably in 2005, when the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt published a slim book called On Bullshit. The Times’s initial tack was to ignore it, but that proved untenable when it climbed to the newspaper’s best-seller list and remained there for 27 weeks. On the list, the title was given as On Bull. Elsewhere in the paper, it was referred to as On Bull—-. In a profile of Frankfurt, bullshit was referred to, oddly, as “[bull].”
So it was a momentous occasion on August 8 when the Times’s Neil Genzlinger’s covering about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast, wrote: “He delivered a monologue on the theme of bullshit, a word he used over and over in the span of a few minutes.”
Momentous and also appropriate. As the success of Frankfurt’s book indicated, bullshit is a growing problem in our culture and not referring to it by its actual name is, well, bullshit. Times reporter Dave Itzkoff posted on Twitter a transcript of Stewart’s closing remarks, and it’s worth checking out. Stewart noted that we are subject to increasing amounts of “premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract.” He concluded with some “good news”:
The bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time — like an I-Spy of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.
Nothing could be more fit to print than that.