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We don't say that here

Reader, please be advised that somewhere in this post you may find words that you do not see, or want to see, in the printed newspaper.

In 1968, when as a high school student I started work at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., there was a strict decorum to be observed in writing about people’s deaths. No one ever died of cancer; people died "after a long illness." No one ever committed suicide; people sometimes "died suddenly."

Forty years ago, cancer was so feared that even naming it could be a taboo. Suicide, like mental illness, was not merely something terribly sad for a family; it was so shameful that polite people would not speak of it openly.

Euphemism, the substitution of a mild term for one thought objectionable, has a long career in newspapers. In Britain, for example, where the law on libel is stricter than in the United States, Private Eye developed a system of code words for writing about the indiscretions of the great and the mighty. "Tired and emotional," for example, was widely understood to mean "drunk in public."

Differing levels of sensitivity about charged language can be seen throughout the news and entertainment media. Cable television features shows that use language not to be heard on network TV. Lewis Black can appear on HBO with dozens of utterances of one of Anglo-Saxon’s most popular verbs (Aw, c’mon, you know what I’m talking about). The same show could not be edited into acceptability for any of the networks. Alternative newspapers and magazines, which are targeted to more specific audiences, can get away with language that many readers of general-circulation newspapers would find objectionable.

Some of this is a good thing. Offensive ethnic and racial terms do not appear in metropolitan dailies or on network television, except perhaps in certain extraordinary contexts. Some may object that this is censorship or political correctitude, but it does serve to diminish some of the incivility in public discourse.

Gauging the tastes and sensitivities of readers is a delicate matter. A previous managing editor circulated a memo more than a decade ago urging the copy desk to "keep ‘sucks’ and other tasteless street language" out of the paper. Even though sucks is widely current in colloquial speech, and even though it appears that to people under the age of, say, 40, it connotes mere disapproval or scorn and carries no association with fellatio, the ban remains in place.

The word frigging creeps into the paper, sometimes in comic strips, because it is thought to be, like freaking, a euphemism for that ever-popular Anglo-Saxon verb. That to frig is a very old verb meaning to masturbate appears to have escaped general knowledge in an era of unreliable public education.

If you found the caution at the top of this posting titillating, I regret to inform you that sucks and frigging are as raw as it gets, unless you also find masturbate and fellatio offensive. Sorry.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:48 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

I'd like to ban the noun and the verb "pimp," especially in the usage "pimp my car (or whatever."

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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