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.
The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold broke the story of what they termed an “extremely lewd conversation” between Donald Trump and Billy Bush in 2005. But the Post expurgated three of the taboo words (fuck, shit, and pussy) with the tried-and-true dashing technique. (Bitch and tits passed editorial muster.)
“I did try and f— her. She was married,” Trump says. […]
“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married,” Trump says. “Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.” […]
“Your girl’s hot as s—, in the purple,” says Bush, who’s now a co-host of NBC’s “Today” show. […]
“Grab them by the p—y,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”
The Post’s decision seemed particularly decorous considering the article was accompanied by a video that did not censor the words. And as Politico reports, other outlets like The New York Times and CNN decided to print the quotes without expurgation. The Wall Street Journal allowed pussy, bitch, and tits, but omitted the quotes with fuck and shit.
Politico goes on to say, “Many other news outlets, meanwhile, utilized a full slate of bleeps, ellipses, red-letter warnings and biology-class euphemisms to avoid using words that flowed easily from the tongue of the Republican presidential nominee.”
In the case of the Times, early versions of the story lacked the quotes with offending words, but the article was revised to include them. As Times politics editor Carolyn Ryan told Politico, the decision was made after a lengthy discussion, with editors ultimately ruling that the use of the words was newsworthy enough to quote verbatim. “To leave it out or simply describe it seemed awkward and less than forthright to us, especially given that we would be running a video that showed our readers exactly what was said,” Ryan said.
This is not the first time that any of these words has appeared in The Times. As I wrote in a piece for Slate’s Lexicon Valley in 2014 and in a Strong Language post last year, shit has graced the newspaper’s pages a number of times since first appearing in transcripts of the Watergate tapes in 1974. That includes a shit sighting in a multi-part story in December 2013 about a homeless girl in Brooklyn named Dasani (“I don’t give a shit if she’s crying”). The Dasani series also included two instances of fuck (her mother is quoted as saying, “Shut the fuck up” and “She think she some-fucking-body.”)
As for pussy, the Times has had no trouble publishing dozens of stories about the dissident Russian punk band Pussy Riot. The paper also reported on the notorious use of pussy at a Trump rally as an insult directed at Ted Cruz. But the name Pussy Riot is slyly ambiguous, and the pussy epithet doesn’t necessarily have to be interpreted as referring to female genitalia. (For more, see Nancy Friedman’s posts, “A Feline Profanity, Part 1” and “Part 2,” as well as this episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast.) As far as I know, this is the first time that the Times has published pussy in a context where there is no ambiguity about its bodily referent. It’s just another way that this campaign season, thanks to Trump, has been truly unprecedented, profanity-wise.