Monday, March 31, 2014

The end of euphemisms?

Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society and author of “The F-Word,” makes the case in the NYT for printing expletives in full (“The Case for Profanity in Print”). He says this is particularly imperative when said expletives are integral to a story (as in the case, among many others, of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland using the four-letter word to refer dismissively to the EU); or when reviewing works of literature and art with expletives in their titles. He thinks not just efforts to render the exact words that were used in a roundabout way, but also replacing some of the letters comprising these with asterisks or dashes, can only serve to obscure important aspects of what needs to be reported or reviewed – and harks back to a bygone year of unnecessary prudishness.

This raises an interesting question. Should there be any limits to what can appear in print or on a screen? Sheidlower does not suggest any. He makes a nod to some lingering sensitivities when he mentions that “terms that are insulting toward a particular group of people should be handled with sensitivity.” But, he hastens to add, “that doesn’t mean obscuring the issue” – so racial slurs are to be printed in full, too. How about terms which many people still, clinging to backward tastes, find unpalatable? Their apprehensions should obviously count for even less – so they would be best advised to hug the Zeitgeist, or at least downregulate their yuk responses.

As I was reading this, I kept scratching my head – wondering how, exactly, replacing a few letters in a word with asterisks, and thus rendering its meaning transparent while indicating that it still belongs to a different linguistic layer, detracts from a news story or review. But never mind – as Cervantes demonstrated long ago, fighting windmills can bring to tangible benefits.