What is it you [can’t] face?

The following is a short guest post by David Morris, a teacher of English as a second language in Sydney, Australia. He holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics, and blogs about language at Never Pure and Rarely Simple.

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A few days ago the movie The Sound of Music screened (yet again) on Australian television. One of my Facebook friends alluded to the recurring rumour that in a conversation between Maria and the abbess, the latter doesn’t actually say ‘Maria, what is it you can’t face?’, but rather ‘What is it, you cunt-face?’

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Sweary links #2

A smorgasbord of sweary bits for your weekend degustation:

All ADJ and shit

“As far as I can see, ‘all proper and shit’ is a syntactically, semantically, and pragmatically compositional combination of two constructions that have existed in English for hundreds of years.” Language Log’s Mark Liberman considers a shitty idiom.

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When “shit” hits the newspapers

In 1945 (in The American Language: Supplement 1), H.L. Mencken decried “the extraordinary prudishness of the American newspapers, which always hesitate to report genuine profanity in full, or even any harmless discourse quoting its more familiar terms.” While things have loosened up a bit in the seven decades since Mencken registered his complaint, there are still certain four-letter words that are considered off-limits for most American papers, including shit.

The New York Times famously made an exception to the no-shit rule in 1974 when it transcribed a line from Nixon’s Watergate tapes, “I don’t give a shit what happens.” Times editor Abe Rosenthal was quoted at the time as saying “We’ll only take shit from the President,” an edict that again came into play in 2006 when a live microphone caught George W. Bush dropping an S-bomb. There have been a few other shit sightings in the Times since then, though the so-called Obama Doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit” has been decorously bowdlerized as “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

Beyond the Timesshit has worked its way into some U.S. newspapers since the relaxation of linguistic taboos in the late ’60s. Countercultural publications led the way, as with The Realist and its 1966 shit-in, or The Village Voice reporting on hippie activists in 1967. By the ’70s and ’80s more mainstream papers were joining in, too, and not just when quoting the president.

But before all that, in the era of “extraordinary prudishness” to which Mencken referred, shit typically would only make it into the newspaper thanks to some sort of typesetting shenanigans. Here I’ve collected some of the accidental/prankish shits that have come to light in searches of digitized databases.

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