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Bad words

The discussion of the appropriateness of publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad underlines that while newspapers in the West have broad freedom to publish, virtually all exercise levels of discretion over what goes into print.

A newspaper could print any or all of the vulgar words for body parts or sexual congress without fear of punishment for obscenity — a circumstance that was not always the case in this country. And most newspapers have style guidelines severely restricting the occasions on which offensive ethnic terms or other slurs can be published.

When people left homeless by last year’s hurricanes objected strenuously to being described as refugees, The Sun and many other newspapers ceased to use the word in that context. That was a defensible decision to refrain from offending readers pointlessly.

Each newspaper establishes its own level of decorum, or lack of it, to reflect the tastes and preferences of its audience. When it was disclosed, for example, that Monica Lewinsky had preserved a blue dress as a souvenir of an encounter with President Bill Clinton, The New York Times did not use the phrase “semen-stained dress” until several paragraphs into the continuation of the story on an inside page. The Daily News, in contrast, ran the headline SHE KEPT SEX DRESS.

Diction and decorum are elements of the identity a publication presents to its readers, and editors make multiple decisions every day on the suitability of material and language.

Editing goes on everywhere. When the Commonwealth of Kentucky made Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” its state song, no objection was heard to the second line: “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” In a more enlightened era, the legislature rewrote the line to the less objectionable “’Tis summer, the people are gay.” Replacing the odious darkies with an innocuous disyllable was easy enough, but the legislature did not address gay, which, as a rhyme word, would be harder to replace.

Of course, it may be that the good people of the commonwealth have no particular objection to gay. Besides, the song is mainly sung on Derby Day, at which point the singers are typically so far gone in liquor that they are little likely to attend to the words. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (4)


I appreciate this very topical entry but am not sure I’ve entirely grasped your position. It would seem to me that the press is truly on the horns of a dilemma on this one. On the one hand, I am--as a non-Muslim--very curious as to what these cartoons might look like and have a fully legitimate right to see them. I have always assumed that one of the core functions of an enlightened press in a democratic society is to keep its readership as fully informed as possible. On the other hand, I am aware that any number of deaths have already resulted from the publication of these cartoons, and that to continue such publication will have a direct correlation to elevating the number of deaths. Were I in an editorial role, I would truly be at a loss.

I’m not sure that issues relative to good taste, as in, say, describing the sine qua non of Ms. Lewinski’s taste in souvenirs or publishing photos of Saddam Hussein in his underwear really enters into it.

Fortunately, the Internet, immediate provider of any and all information, provides a marvelous escape hatch.

Why is there an apostrophe in "hurricanes" in the third paragraph?

Grasping the position: Soupstained has stated it very nicely; there is a dilemma, a choice between two unattractive oprtions. Publishing the cartoons satisfies free-speech considerations but gratuitously offends readers. Refraining from publication avoids offense but denies information to readers.

The point I was attempting to make is that editors make such discretionary decisions every day about a multitude of issues, great and small, and many of them can be disputed.

About that apostrophe in the third graph: It was a fossil remnant of a previous version of the sentence, and it is gone now.

Why do you say "gratuitously offends readers"? You say that it provides useful information to readers! That makes it far from gratuitous.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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