Tuesday, April 10, 2012

They f--- you up, those stylebook rules

Michiko Kakutani has a review of Philip Larkin’s “Complete Poems” in the New York Times today, and she tries to quote one of the funniest and most famous of them. But it's the Times, so of course she can't print the bad word in the poem. She can't even use the first letter -- such hints are "offensive or coy." The rule is that "an article should not seem to be saying, 'Look, I want to use this word, but they won't let me.' Generally that principle rules out telltale strings of hyphens or dashes." 

But paraphrases are "sparingly" allowed, and one is allowed here:
They mess you up, "your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you."
I'm not sure this actually passes the no-coy-hints test; it's pretty clear that the first half-line must include a taboo word, and the verb is the obvious candidate. If I were the writer, I think I'd have pleaded to use the rarely permitted [expletive] instead -- or, more likely, just skipped the attempt entirely, given that butchery was a foregone conclusion.

(Update: Edited 4/17 to correct the third line of the quote, where I had typed "fill you up." Thanks, Nancy F.)


John Cowan said...

In case of trial or tribulation
Perform swift circular ambulation
With loud and anguished ululation.

No actual taboo word, but I thought you'd like it.

Kay L. Davies said...

Too funny. I like John Cowan's comment!

Lane said...

The Times seems to inconsistently relax ban this when news (urgent news, not book reviews) warrants. Hence "Niggerhead" in the pages, and a few more examples I've forgotten. I take it that every example involves a hushed editorial meeting, some serious hand-wringing and a fainting couch.

Niggerhead here, including an e-mail from Philip Corbett, the Times editor responsible:


More here:



Jan said...

Lane: Yes, reading the Times stylebook on this is like getting a lecture from your straitlaced grandfather. You want to apologize for even thinking of using a naughty word.

Gregory: Of course I mean "fuck"; my headline was a nod to the post's theme of taboo avoidance. Sorry you were not amused. (BTW, did you see my belated response to you on the previous post?)

Gregory Lee said...

Jan wrote: BTW, did you see my belated response to you on the previous post?

Yes -- I didn't quite know what to make of it. Did you mean the dialect of the country gentle-folk Goldsmith depicted would have been shared by Goldsmith, and so when Goldsmith wrote that objective "I", we should conclude that he would himself have used that construction in his own speech? That could perfectly well be true, so far as I know, and I'm happy to accept your word for it (if that's what you meant).

About "fuck" -- I intended no criticism, but just felt a little oppressed by the overall euphemistic tone of the discussion, and had an urge to get all 4 letters out there.

Marc Leavitt said...

We editors have to remember that we work for "family newspapers." Have you eavesdropped on a nine-year-old lately?

Bryan White said...

I don't mind the paraphrase too much, as it flows smoothly and it's easy to read. But I agree that it makes it fairly obvious what the deal is.

Jan said...

This really should be in the earlier thread, but what the hell.

No, I didn't mean "the dialect of the country gentle-folk Goldsmith depicted would have been shared by Goldsmith," or that Goldsmith would have used the objective "for papa and I" himself. I have no idea how deprecated it would have been in speech of his class at the time. What you'd suggested (I thought) was that it might have been used to show the character's lack of polish; I didn't think so, given the rest of the play. But maybe it is riddled with 18th-c language gaffes that I don't see; if so, I'd be happy to learn about them.