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The x-words

For the love of God, I’m sick of the coyness.

It may have started with the reluctance of the mainstream press to publish the common profanities and obscenities. The f-word, we write, when we want to indicate one of the most popular verbs in English.

That led by extension to other objectionable words, at the hazard of some confusion. If you can’t think of at least two terms that the c-word might represent, then your convent education has been a success. The Sun used to represent objectionable words with the initial letter and a string of hyphens, but a former editor decreed that we would use the initial letter and two em-dashes instead (not f - - - but f — —).Don’t treat obscenities like the Jumble, he said; we’re not making it a puzzle for them to solve.

Apprehension about using a taboo word has led to widespread use of the n-word in place of the most common racial slur directed at African-Americans. The NAACP conducted a ceremony this summer to “bury the n-word,” to encourage the retirement of the demeaning word not only among white racists but also among African-Americans themselves.

Good luck with that. As I drive through Baltimore with the car windows open, the n-word blares from car stereos half a dozen times in a block.

The n-word among African-Americans, like the q-word among gays, indicates a persistent phenomenon about pejorative terms. They can be used by members of the group, but not by outsiders. If I, a first-generation Appalachian, choose to utter the c-word (that’s cracker) among my fellow hill-jacks, that’s my business; but you would be well advised to mind your manners.

In the monkey-see-monkey-do world of professional journalism, this weasely circumlocution proliferates all over the landscape. In political articles, one sees the l-word to represent the conviction that dare not breathe its name. This is, of course, meant to be cute, since liberal is an obscene termamong only a handful of readers.

I feel a strong anarchic impulse to abandon all this nonsense and publish words as they are used. But as long as we have readers who find profane and obscene language deeply offensive, it is not in our interest to cheese them off.

At the very least however, if we must tiptoe around the language and festoon it with euphemism, let’s euphemize what is genuinely offensive instead of trying to be cute.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:35 PM | | Comments (2)


I've always thought it silly that people are offended by mere language. A curse word is just that: a word. They are, in many cases, used to communicate more effectively and even when used gratuitously, they often serve to get a particular point across. So much for sticks and stones.

I suspect that the reason for the --- after some words is that once seen, some readers will read no further and others will focus exclusively on the ---. In the case of euphemisms, it's clear to me that the point is to avoid 'offending' (a word that should use ---) small groups of the self-important minorities. I'm not white trash, although I know it when I see and hear it, and I use the term with impunity. Perhaps if news organizations printed the words they meant for one whole week, no --- or euphemisms allowed, we'd all learn how prickly the readership really is. Lord knows the pictures on the news are often o---enough on their own. As to Mr McIntyre's commuting accompaniment, I suggest 1) take another route or 2) close the windows, turn on the air conditioning and listen to "Israel in Egypt".(What does "cracker' mean and what is its derivation?

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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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