Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On (not) getting "pussy" into print

Jesse Sheidlower’s Monday op-ed in the Times, calling for an end to prissy taboo avoidance in print, was a beautiful demonstration of the problem: Even in writing about words like fuck, bullshit, and asshole, he wasn’t allowed to mention the words.

It reminded me of the time I thought pussy would pass muster in my Boston Globe language column. The year was 2005, and I had been writing The Word for almost eight years without anyone complaining about my language: Nobody had turned a hair at discussions of intransitive suck, or scumbag, or brown-nose (though some readers were surprised to learn the terms’ underlying senses).

This time the main topic was nooky. A reader had inquired about a humorous use of the word in a Globe Magazine subhed, where a young man wondered if the baby he and his wife were expecting meant “the end of nooky as we know it.” Wasn’t this as vulgar as using the f-word?

Looking into the history of nooky, I found that it had meanings both naughty and nice, sexist and affectionate. My original copy is long gone, with the computer it rode in on, but the relevant paragraph was very like this:
The rude nooky, which means a woman (or women) viewed as sexual prey, or sometimes just the female genitalia, is essentially synonymous with a taboo word that sneaks into print only in disguise (as the Bond character Pussy Galore, for instance). The nice nooky, though, merely means sex, or even just "fooling around," and it's something both men and women can want.
But that “Pussy Galore” meant my column had to be OK’d by a Top Editor in Charge of Language. I didn’t know such an office existed, but it did, and the TEICOL outranked even the Executive Editor when it came to Language. And she said no pussy, no Pussy, no way.

I had come prepared to make my case. The Globe had used Pussy Galore’s name at least 17 times already, referring to either the Bond girl or the band of the same name, and Octopussy racked up more than 40 cites. And what with the bands Space Pussy and Nashville Pussy, the satirical play “Pussy on the Roof,” and the “Sopranos” character Big Pussy, pussies of various origins had been all over the paper, even omitting pussycats and pussy willows.

But my stats cut no ice. So I tried to explain that I wasn’t using the word pussy, I was mentioning the word. I could feel the skepticism pulsing through the phone. Linguistic theory and pussy precedent didn't matter: This one was not going public.

Finally I rewrote the graf, pussy-free:
The rude nooky, which means a woman (or women) viewed as sexual prey, or sometimes just the female genitalia, is essentially synonymous with a word almost taboo in newspapers, though the James Bond movies sneak it past the censors in (im)proper names like that of the blonde bombshell in "Goldfinger."
The episode was puzzling, but I finally concluded that the moral was simply “feign ignorance.” If you want to print rude words (outside of serious news contexts), you have to pretend that you don’t notice their taboo senses.

Apparently the group Pussy Riot does qualify under the serious-news exception: If you can get yourself thrown in jail by Putin, high-minded editors will overlook the fact that your name was chosen as a provocation. And Pussy Riot's ubiquity may help speed the word's recasting as a feminist war cry.

But "pretend you don't notice the play on words" is a strange guideline for editorial policy at a grownups' newspaper. And so is "don't mention the naughty word itself." As Sheidlower notes, "Discussing a word is not the same as wantonly using a word, just as reporting on racism does not make you a racist." If a word is newsworthy, let's assume readers can handle the sight of it.

Note: The original "nooky" column is behind a paywall, so I've reposted it here