It’s all too common these days. After a flight, a long meeting, a night’s rest, or any other blissful reprieve, we check the headlines. “Okay, I’ve been colouring my hair all morning and haven’t looked at the news once. Deep breath,” as one tweeter steeled herself. “What fresh hell have I missed?” What fresh hell indeed: While hell is a very mild taboo by Strong Language standards, the phrase is still the perfect expression for the experience of all the news, in its unrelenting cascade of controversies and outrages, in the Trump era.
Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers the media’s coverage of the Donald Trump pussy-grab tape: “The word Trump used may not be the most obscene term for a woman’s genital area. But it’s the one that focuses on it in a purely sexual way.” (Also see our own posts on the subject: A Banner Day for Profanity, by Ben Zimmer; Pussy on a Hot Trump Mic, by Copy Curmudgeon; and Watershed Moments: Donald Trump, Rakeyia Scott, and the Times, by Blake Eskin.)
Speaking of Trumpian vulgarities, Language Log ponders the candidate’s use of “like a bitch.”
Arnold Zwicky tracks down the history of jackhole: coined by two Los Angeles radio personalities to circumvent Federal Communications Commission language proscriptions.
This is a Missouri gun shop called Tactical Sh*t pic.twitter.com/g3zmYzDDCz
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) October 10, 2016
(Hat tip: @scarequotes)
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.