Decisions on quoting obscenities depend on the policies of the publication, usually enforced by editors. Any obscenity, even “heck” or “darn,” will offend somebody, and publications differ in how offensive they choose to appear. Rolling Stone and Taste of Home publish in different universes.
So-called “family newspapers” are particularly prissy, based on the idea that children should never read “bad” language. Actually, the children I know talk dirtier than I do. The truth is, newspaper editors can’t stand irate calls from retired English teachers at 10 a.m.
We have a whole arsenal of tactics for dealing with obscenity: deleting it, quoting it verbatim, paraphrasing it, labeling it, writing around it, and coding the offensive words.
Sometimes you just quote it. If you’re writing about what someone said, and how it was said is important, your readers will wonder what you’re talking about if you don’t tell them. When former Vice President Cheney hurled an obscenity, the public had a right to know what he said that caused the fuss. Whatever readers imagine will probably be worse than the actual quote.
You can code the offending words. A famous blast of expletives erupted at the end of a football game in Tampa between the Jets and the Bucs. Millions of fans heard it all as parabolic microphones broadcast the exchanges on television. Here are some excerpts from a local paper trying to capture the action without offending kiddies or little old ladies:
1. What the Jets said was, “%%&**!!!” or words to that effect.
2. A gutter of four-letter words bubbled from angry New York Jets.
3. “McKay, you’re an ——-,” screamed one New York Jet.
4. “McKay, you’re an a–hole,” shouted offensive lineman Ted Banker.
5. “F— you,” McKay shot back.
The first two examples leave readers who didn’t watch the game wondering what was yelled. The third one, my favorite, tries to hide the word “asshole” by coding it with dashes. Readers, of course, will feel compelled to decode it, so they have to search their entire obscene vocabulary for a seven-letter word beginning with a vowel! Numbers four and five don’t hide anything; they just create an appearance of propriety. I’ve protected the newspaper, by the way, the St. P——–g T—s, by coding its title.
You may end up emphasizing obscenity by not quoting it and playing with the naughtiness of language, as in this example: “Ellis, known for a brand of psychotherapy called Rational-Emotive Therapy, seasons his talks with a generous sprinkling of words that end in s—. As in bull and horse.” Or this one: “All she has to do is get them to her appointed contact, but it’s obvious in that parking garage that the milk is spilt, the cat’s out of the bag, and the you-know-what has hit the fan.”
Political correctness winks at offensive language, as when we use such common euphemisms as “the N-word” or “the F-word,” as in this example: “She uses the ‘f’ word, and she uses it a lot, usually as a transitive verb.” The insertion “[Expletive deleted]” calls attention to the fact that the speaker used an expletive; readers usually assume the worst expletives. Remember the Nixon tapes?
Let’s go back to first principles and ask why you would ever publish any obscenity:
· The obscenity is the news.
· We want to characterize someone who swears a lot.
· We have to use a quote that has obscenity in it.
In any context in any publication, obscenity jumps off the page, and can distract readers, even very sophisticated or dirty-minded readers. We must balance this distraction, this break in the flow of reading, against the specificity of the obscenity. Every word you write must have meaning and purpose, so you would never use obscenity gratuitously. You would delete it unless it is germane to a quote. If you must use an obscenity, I believe you should publish it verbatim, full force.
Here’s a tricky exception. Obscenity may be part of your voice, in a publication that allows it. In that case, let ‘er rip.
[Let’s hear your views on this controversial stance. Anybody want to contribute anecdotes?]