Monday, March 31, 2014

When Is an Inappropriate Word Appropriate?

The debate about "appropriate" language in public forums continues to rage. This all but absurd essay by Jesse Sheidlower in today's NYTimes (absurd because it has to be stated at all) contains this explanation:

"Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all. Even when certain words are necessary to the understanding of a story, the media frequently resort to euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory. Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples.

"Taste is a legitimate concern. But this isn’t a matter of sprinkling salty words around to spice up the content. These circumlocutions actually deprive readers of the very thing these institutions so grandly promise: news and information. At a time when readers can simply go online to find the details from more nimble upstarts willing to be frank, the mainstream media need to accurately report language that is central to their stories."

I got into a little disagreement the other day with a friend who sees language differently than I do. She had posted a quote that made a lot of sense, but it was sprinkled with so much profanity--including the liberal use of "fuck"--that I got lost in the vulgarity of it and almost missed the point.

I use a lot of profanity in speaking (regretfully) to certain people. I contain it in certain circumstances. "Fuck" is a word that generally does not make me uncomfortable unless it is overused (it was nearly the only word I understood in the movie "Trainspotting" where people spoke Highland Scots). I use it and I understand--I think--its power when used judiciously. OK, yes, "judicious" use of "fuck" might be a contradiction of terms, but I don't think it always is.

Newspaper language has almost always been behind what the public accepts because the conservative backlash at something as innocuous as "damn" can be pretty severe. So, they go safely into the night and sometimes leave the reader wondering, "What the fuck did he say?" That's not reporting. It's obfuscating in order to avoid offending the lowest common denominator. And it's damn well not journalism.


1 comment:

  1. Dan, I agree that there are times and places where cussing is not only appropriate but necessary. I grew up in a family where one side cussed and the other frowned on such language. Typically, when I write, I do not use cuss words. If I'm writing about my great aunt Lottie, I have to cuss because that language was a normal part of who she was.

    I think journalism does need to change with the times; however, it needs to change responsibly not randomly.