When Editors Get Riled Up About Dirty Words

One of my daily pleasures is reading the discussion posts in the Yahoo Group for the
Editorial Freelancers Association. Aside from the usual technical questions, there are often posts labeled “Chat” that relate somewhat more remotely to editing or freelancing, though they usually have something to do with words or writing.

Recently someone posted a “Chat” about an author’s fight with the New York Times about including the word “bitchassness” in an article. Evidently the Times, though they have allowed “bitch” and “ass” many times before, are balking this time. The word is being included in reference to Sean “Diddy” Combs’s numerous YouTube blogs, one of which includes this word in its title.

The original poster simply thought it was funny to what lengths this author had gone to argue his point with the newspaper. But others were not so amused and said that the word offended them and was hate speech. This has led to a lively little conversation about free speech, censorship, figurative meanings, and cultural mores.

We have roughly two camps: those who think that the word should be allowed because 1) it’s not that offensive, or 2) it’s being used as a quotation and not directly describing someone; and those who think it’s offensive hate speech that is derogatory to women.

If Mr. Combs uses this term solely for women, then perhaps there would be a stronger case for it being derogatory. But I watched the offending blog post, and the term seems to be used in a general sense. Interestingly, he uses the “N word” several times and a variant of it appears in text at the end of the post — but nobody has mentioned that being a problem!

Some people in the EFA discussion argued that there are plenty of words that have had more negative and even salacious connotations or meanings in the past but are commonly used today: “jerk” and “suck” were two examples. But then others responded that just because some words have passed into common usage doesn’t mean others should follow.

On a related note, I’ve been following the case FCC v. Fox Television Stations currently under consideration in the Supreme Court, mostly through rather hilarious posts on Language Log. If you don’t want to read lots and lots of swear words, don’t click those last three links!

Here the question is all about the “F word” whether the FCC is applying its rules consistently to fine broadcasters who neglect to edit out obscenities, even if fleeting. But I have to smile at linguists using rather complex semantic analyses, including graphs, to decide whether certain words are used as intensifiers (“effing brilliant!”) or as actual references to obscene acts. And for really funny stuff, read the comments.

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8 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Deep Thoughts, editing, Writing

8 responses to “When Editors Get Riled Up About Dirty Words

  1. We have a dirty secret in our house, we keep a TV in the closet and take it out every Sunday night to watch Masterpiece Theatre, last night was a movie called “Filth”, about a woman who was outraged about the programming on the BBC in the 60’s, it was funny and opened up a good discussion about censorship. I think you can watch it on-line for a couple more days before they take it off line. If you have not seen MPT for a while they have a new series this year called “Masterpiece Contemporary” it has had very compelling selections, last week was “God on Trial”- Amazing (OK this is completely OT)

  2. Just came back and read my comment. Now I remember why I do not usually blog so early in the morning- MAJOR run-on sentences.

  3. You spend your internet time in truly fascinating ways — I learn so many things about the writing craft, and its resources, from you. I had no idea there was such a place on Yahoo Groups! Although I am not a member of the EFA, I am a member of the NWU. I will poke around and check the discussion groups there. It appears they are judging/censoring inconsistently — interesting the the N word, in light of our society’s position today, is not “red flagged.”

    On another note, I was saddened to see on Yahoo news the amount of racial violence and protest since the election. Living in my bubble, I thought (hoped, maybe) America had moved beyond this.

  4. One of my guilty secrets is that I really love the show “Family Guy,” which featured, at one point, a very funny (IMO) song about the hypocrisies (is that right? It doesn’t look right) of the FCC and Fox. Your post made me think of it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4DTbmaosN-s

    (Warning: potentially offensive satire)

  5. Lisa Anne: Run-ons? I hadn’t even noticed. I do really try to turn of the editor brain when I’m reading blogs and comments, so don’t every worry! I watched MPT every week with my mom when I was young…I’ll have to check it out again online.

    Susie: Seems like there is a Yahoo! Group for everything. If NWU doesn’t have one, you start it! In the context of the author’s disagreement with the NYT, I guess he wasn’t quoting the “N word”, so it never came up in the discussion. But that one would bother me much more than the one in question! I suppose it’s an example of a group reclaiming a hateful word for their own use, like “queer” for gays. I still think the “N word” isn’t acceptable in our society the way queer is, though.

    David: I haven’t watched it in years, but I remember liking The Family Guy a lot. Did they really air that song on TV? That’s amazing! On a side note, another reason to love working at home: no such thing as Not Safe For Work!

  6. Heni — Yes, they really did air that song … I’m consistently amazed at what they get away with.

  7. Nana

    The major problem with a constant barrage of indelicate (wow! what a euphamism) language is that people become desensitized or do I mean desanitized :), just as with violence, pornography, or any form of societal no-nos. We need to be cautious when the no-nos become the norm because it robs us of our human dignity. Please forgive the typos, I’m tired.

  8. Nana: You have a point there, that “everybody’s doing it” is not a good reason to do the same. I think that linguists will point to the relatively slow changes in language over time, one of which is the relaxing of strictures against public obscenities. But you have pointed to one of the reasons we don’t watch TV: why litter your brain with that stuff and become desensitized?

    On a side note, SillyBilly asked me the other day why some words had little lines in between them (he was seeing hyphens). I explained that some words start out separate — let’s take “baseball” as a hypothetical example. From Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1848): “It was not very wonderful that Catherine . . . should prefer cricket, base ball . . . to books.” Eventually people start using those words together more and more, and so they start hyphenating them. From Harper’s Magazine, Dec. 1883: “An oval ball . . . a little larger than a base-ball.” Then people use them for so long that they decide they should be permanently attached, and so we now have “baseball”.

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