Sentimentally, we like to think that ladies of an earlier time — mostly our grandmothers and great-grandmothers — lived virtuous lives, without swearing. When Joseph Mitchell profiled A. S. Colborne, who spent much of his life trying to exterminate profanity, for The New Yorker in 1941, he captured the paradoxical view of women’s swearing, partly as a function of class, at that time. When Mitchell visited one day, Colborne explained, “I’m sort of sleepy … Sat up late last night studying over bar and grill profanity. Why, the women are worse than the men. And you can’t talk to them! Why, they’ll spit in your eye!” But then, he remembered that when he first started admonishing swearers on the street, he would insist, “‘Your dear old mother never taught you to talk like that. Think it over!” But maybe some mothers did, and some classy women of the mid-twentieth century apparently swore a lot, whatever our mythology.
I was reminded of this while reading Janet Somerville’s new selection of Martha Gellhorn’s letters, Yours, for probably always (Firefly Books, 2019) and then Caroline Morehead’s Gellhorn: A Twentieth-Century Life (Henry Holt and Company, 2003). Gellhorn is a remarkable writer, perhaps most famous for her war reporting. The final edition of The Face of War (1988), collects dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, the wars in Finland and China, Word War II, wars in Java and Vietnam, the Six Day War, and Central American wars. She wrote fiction, too, perhaps most importantly The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936), four stories about the Great Depression. To my mind, Gellhorn is one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.
The New York Times has a replete searchable archive. Every issue is there. But every issue from before 1996 has been OCRed (has had optical character recognition performed on it) and in general has not been checked by human eyes. The result is that sometimes the words you see online are not the words that were in print. And word forms are sometimes misrecognized as other lexical items, such as fuck, rather than as unintelligible collections of characters. (The word fuck per se has appeared many times in The New York Times even before recent years, especially in excerpts from books.)
And so we get this headline from September 29, 1950:
Fucks and Wilt Will Speak
What a fucking week! In the U.S., Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement — but only after siding with the court majority in upholding President Trump’s travel ban and bestowing a judicial blessing on anti-abortion facilities. The Environment Protection Agency’s chief ethics officer recommended an investigation of his own boss. Immigrant children as young as 3 were being ordered to appear in court alone. A gunman with a festering grudge shot up the newsroom of a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five employees. And in the UK … well, we’ll get there in a minute.
It was, in short, a week guaranteed to elicit a lot of strong language, and on that score it did not disappoint. Here’s a brief round-up.
On Friday, after President Trump abruptly canceled a June 12 meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, reporters scrambled to file updates. One of them was Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, who attempted to get a quote from Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk), an expert on nuclear nonproliferation. The response wasn’t quite what Dale had hoped for, but it was newsworthy in its own way.
Goat rodeo seems like an amusing but innocuous way to describe the chaotic situation that Lewis was alluding to. On the surface, it appears more family friendly than its time-honored synonyms clusterfuck, fuckup, snafu (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up), fubar (Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition), and shitshow. Dig a little deeper, though, and you discover the sweary origins of the term. Continue reading
Back in October, news spread about an anonymous crowdsourced list titled “Shitty Media Men,” which compiled various rumors and allegations of sexual misdeeds by men in the media industry. “Shitty Media Men” became newsworthy again this week after Twitter started buzzing that Harper’s was planning to publish a piece by Katie Roiphe that would reveal the name of the list’s creator. That led to several writers declaring that they would pull stories from Harper’s in protest. In a piece for The Cut, Moira Donegan bravely stepped forward to identify herself as the creator of the list.
Here I won’t dwell on the shittiness of the media men’s alleged behavior, or the shittiness of Harper’s and Roiphe for whatever plans they might have had to out Donegan and expose her to potential abuse. (Roiphe claims she wasn’t going to name Donegan without permission, but a fact-checker from Harper’s contacted Donegan and told her she was going to be identified.) Rather, let’s look at how newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are handling the shitty word at the center of this shitty story.