Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cussing in the press
( not a post for the readily offended)

Here is an intelligent discussion from the Guardian about the use of profanity in newspapers, or, more accurately, in their newspaper, which eschews asterisks in favor of a policy of either quoting a person or not quoting them.  Don't click if you don't want to see some naughty words. In fact, don't read any farther in this post if you don't want to see some naughty words.

The graphic above, tracing the rise of profanity in the Guardian, comes from a separate blog post and was referenced in the comments, which are far more interesting than comments at most news sites and are (thus) worth reading.

I agree with the Guardian writer, not only because I already felt that way but because he quotes Charlotte Bronte in his defense. Anyone who can quote Charlotte Bronte in defense of writing "fuck" has my vote right off the bat.

At the same time, I'd offer two observations:

1. As a reporter, it's unfair to use vulgarities yourself while conducting an interview, enticing your subject to also use vulgarities, and then quote him accurately without peppering a representative number of your own throughout the article to capture the tone of the discussion. It's entrapment, causing him to be depicted as someone who routinely goes blue in settings where others would not.

2. When I was in college, only a few years past the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, my father sent me an article from either Harper's or the Atlantic Monthly about the rise of vulgarity, with the intriguing question, "If you say &*%$E##& in public, what do you say to a flat tire in the middle of the Golden Gate bridge at rush hour?" Alas, I am quoting from memory. Would love to read the piece again 40 years later and see how I feel about it now. But there is something to be said for reserving a few truly special expressions for those truly special moments.

Finally, just on the off-chance of confounding an assumption or two, I found this article referenced at Al Jazeera, in a posting about Malaysia's apparent loosening of language restrictions, specifically its non-censoring of the vulgarity-laden film "Kick-Ass."


Mark Jackson said...

Is that Charlotte I hear shouting "where the fuck is my diaeresis!"?

Brian Fies said...

Always thought the asterisks were stupid. Either the f*cking word was still obvious, which fooled no one, or it became so indecipherable the reader stopped reading for five minutes just to figure out the puzzle. Dumb either way, and I don't think delicate ladies have swooned to their fainting couches upon hearing coarse language in at least a century.

When I'm king of all media, profanity will be allowed in direct quotes and the rare opinion piece. You'd have to let your sources know the rules have changed; I've covered people on beats who swore up storms knowing I'd clean 'em up. But I can't imagine a reporter using it in a straight news story. Just not necessary.

Mark Jackson said...

The edition of Don't Go Near the Water I read replaced all instances of Farragut Jones' favorite word with underlines - ____ing, ____er, etc. I had no idea what these stood for!

(Given that the novel was published in 1956 I was at least 7, which suggests I had a rather sheltered childhood. On the other hand I have no explanation for why a 7-year-old would have picked up that book in the first place.)

Mark Jackson said...

And in an odd bit of synchrony Mike, in his other blog, is praising Keith Knight's work on the same day that Knight is disguising a swear word.

Tim said...

Related to your second observation, I've always thought that swear words only have power when you don't use them very often. Overuse causes their dilution.

Unrelated to that, one of my favorite quotes is, "Profanity is the sign of an inarticulate motherfucker."


Mark Jackson said...

...and not to flog a dead horse into the ground to excess, but the Big Top strip that is rerunning today is a nice example of a joke that depends on using something else in place of a Bad Word.

ronnie said...

As a constant user of closed-captions, I am astonished at the number of times that profanities spoken aloud in tv programs and movies are ***d in the captions - or, less often, profanities that are audibly "bleeped" out in the dialogue are spelled out in full in the captions. I'm at a loss to explain this discrepancy.

Except that it's another example of how hopelessly at sea modern media are at trying to figure out how to deal with "bad words".