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The editor and the potty mouth

Lenny Bruce was arrested for uttering language in nightclubs that Lewis Black now uses on cable television. A dozen years ago the editor of The Baltimore Sun prohibited use of the verb suck, described in our guidelines manual as “vulgar street language.” Recently an obliging editor* gave The Sun’s sports section the go-ahead to publish wanker in a direct quote.

What’s a mother to do?

On January 12, I will be conducting an audio conference for Copyediting: "Charged Language: Dealing With the Unspeakable in Copy.” It will look into profanity, ethnic slurs, vulgarisms, and circumlocutions, seeking to provide guidance for editors amid shifting standards of propriety.

You’re welcome—encouraged, even—to sign up for the audio conference, but you are also welcome to suggest dimensions of the topic for discussion or offer examples that would be useful to examine.


*Yeah, me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (7)


The week doesn't pass when I don't pick up the "New Yorker" and wonder how the famously fastidious William Shawn would have reacted to its post-Tina Brown editorial standards. Ah, well ... c'est la f---ing vie. :-)

Oh! I remember when Lenny Bruce said A Very Bad Thing on Ed Sullivan. (Could that show really have been live, like *Live*?) I was too young to get what had happened, but the adults in the living room certainly were not.

As a teenager, i can speak for my generation wen i say language has taken a pretty hard left turn for the worst. Then again, correct usage is rarely if ever encouraged among peers. If someone does exhibit even some grasp of the language the person almost automatically becomes a social pariah. Today its either conform to their vulgarisms and colloquialism or be an out cast. Personally, id rather fucking curse.


Frankly, I'm very surprised the controversial standup comic, provocateur, Lenny Bruce, was even invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, although, respectfully, I don't doubt your recall of that little personal anecdote.

Somehow, the frequently arrested Bruce(mostly for public profanity), although a brilliant, innovative, cutting-edge standup comic,of his day, hardly seemed appropriate for the fairly squeaky-clean, popular Sullivan Sunday evening variety show, where Elvis first appeared under the condition that he would not be shot on camera below his trademark swiveling hips while performing, lest he drive his teeny-bopper female fans into paroxysms of post-pubescent erotic ecstasy.

And who can forget when The Doors w/ their enigmatic, angst-ridden frontman, Jim Morrison, appeared 'live' on The Ed Sullivan Show, singing their just-released new, hot single, "Light My Fire", and were told, pre-performance, by 'the Ed-man' himself, to omit, or reconfigure a certain rather bawdily suggestive line in the smolderingly torrid tune. Of course the ever-enfant terrible, Morrison, defied convention, (and Mr. Sullivan), and sang an unexpurgated, and unextinguished 'Fire', to the sheer delight of the in-studio and home audience alike.

Sadly Lenny Bruce, and Jim Morrison, both inclined to the "potty mouth", died much too young, both from self-administered, drug-induced overdoses. Maybe it pays to work clean. Just sayin'.

I DO know that the astute standup comic/ political satirist, Mort Sahl (kind of Lenny Bruce's cleaned up doppelganger ), appeared on The Ed Sullivan show on numerous occasions. But he was hardly a "potty mouth" comic, or as they say in comedy circles, rarely "worked blue", and moreover, was a brilliant , very prescient positive voice for the disenfranchised, silent majority of American's out there in his viewing audience.

Always on top of current domestic and world events, and breaking newsworthy issues of the day, no one was entirely safe from Sahl's ironic, incisive satirical barbs.

We know that the late African-American comedian Redd Foxx had to toe-the-line in terms of profane comedy material on network TV, as both a standup act and w/ his forays into sitcoms, yet chroniclers of the greater American comedy scene acknowledge that Foxx's Vegas nightclub standup act was totally riven w/ dirty language; and moreover, that that particular 'adult' crowd just ate up his predictably bawdy routines. His numerous best-selling comedy albums also spared few vulgarities, or expletives.

Comedian/ actor Richard Pryor, basically a contemporary of Foxx, worked majorly 'blue', and paved the way for several of today's most successful "potty mouth" Black performers, like Dave Chapelle, Cris Rock, and Eddie Murphy. (Not that the aforementioned comics are exclusively 'blue' working performers, and aren't very talented, and entertaining on other levels of the comedic continuum.)

I've admired comedian Bill Cosby over the years for the fact that he always performs 'clean', never resorting to a 'blue streak', or 'dirty' line to get an easy laugh.

His slice-of-real-life, largely anecdote-based, narrative style of humor never needed off-color material to engage, or entertain his appreciative audiences over his long, and very distinguished career in comedy. But I digress.

This nagging "potty mouth" issue does appear to present a bit of a challenge when it comes to profanity-in-print; specifically newspaper and magazine stories.

In a perfect, nonjudgemental world, I suppose if a reporter is directly quoting a specific newsworthy person, and that individual peppers their conversation w/ various choice expletives, vulgarities, racial slurs, or blasphemies, then it's the reporter's (and the paper's) intrinsic duty to be faithful to what was said, even though some of the quoted language might be deemed offensive to a major segment of their readership. ("Just the facts, ma'am.")

Prof. McI, that upcoming Jan. 12th audio conference should be very illuminating......... or perhaps just a frickin' nightmare. (Sorry for the 'salty' language. Couldn't resist.)

Good luck.



That last dispatch to Eve was mine.

How "Anonymous" Bosch horned in there in the "Posted by:", I'll never know.

Blame the typically verbose McCrae (moi) for that lengthly piece.


P.S.: ------I sympathize w/ our young blogger sam's earlier comments. It's a sorry scenario when you get ostracized, or centered out as some kind of weirdo, or such, by your peer group for merely speaking correctly, and not relying on the easy cliched vulgarisms and the demeaning jargon of the street, or school cliques to communicate. I don't blame you for cursing, sam, but deep down I think you know you're better than that.

By the time I'd read to the third paragraph, I knew that post was from you, Alex!

Eve, I think it is indisputable that Alex has a distinctive writing style. As dear Laura Lee pointed out, it's not exactly Twitter-friendly.

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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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