Down the “shithole”: Why lexicographers need your profanity

Originally published on harm•less drudg•ery

Though the average lexicographer is as odd as a horse in trousers, we are, at least, a staid and quiet horse in trousers most of the time. There’s very little that will rile us up, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

But there is one event that makes most lexicographers startle and gasp in delight, one event that will get us to look up from our desks and start shivering and chittering like lab rats on cocaine:

God bless the motherfucking Washington Post

When a well-respected newspaper prints the word “shithole.” Continue reading

When the news gets shitty

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.

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The curious case of Bull Shit Jack

My recent post on how a particularly obscene paragraph ended up on a local sports page inspired me to go back to a post I wrote in 2015, “When Shit Hits the Newspapers.” In it, I mentioned the enticing prospect that bullshit might have appeared in an American newspaper a few decades before that word started showing up in the writings of such luminaries as T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

Slang lexicographer Jonathan Lighter noted on the American Dialect Society mailing list back in 2008 that there is a mention of a stage-robber in Las Vegas, New Mexico, named John “Bull Shit Jack” Pierce in Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts. Roberts seems to cite an 1881 issue of the Las Vegas Daily Optic on this point. Now that the Optic from that year has been scanned and digitized, it’s possible to check. Sadly, there is no “Bull Shit Jack” to be found, but the expurgated versions that did appear in newspapers of the era leave little doubt as to what his nickname actually was.

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“The most outrageous, violent, filthy language ever printed…”

For Deadspin, Jeff Pearlman has written a remarkable piece, “The Fallout From Sportswriting’s Filthiest Fuck-Up.” Pearlman dives deep into the story of how an incredibly obscene paragraph managed to get slipped into a sports article in the Gallatin (Tenn.) News Examiner in 1997. In the middle of an otherwise routine item on the local high school soccer team comes this shocker:

Dixon sucks donkey dicks and doesn’t wipe the shit off before practice. We like to keep him at the sweeper position so his sperm breath will stop people from penetrating to the goal. Speaking of penetrating, he prefers tall, red-headed guys. Told me to tell Kris he said ‘hello.’

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Mooch mouth: Scaramucci takes public profanity to a new level

Last October, when the Trump/Pussygate story broke, I said it would “go down in history as a watershed moment in public profanity.” Now, six months into the Trump administration, we’ve come to another banner day for profanity, as the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza reports on a remarkable conversation with Anthony Scaramucci, aka the Mooch, Trump’s incoming communications director. Scaramucci unloaded on White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, with a side order of profanity devoted to Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon. And news outlets all over the world are reporting on it.

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