Taboo Avoidance

by Brian on October 10, 2006

Over at “Language Log”:, Arnold Zwicky has been having some fun tracking the various ways in which newspapers avoid printing taboo words. The strangest instance of differing taboo standards I’ve seen was in an article in the SMH this morning. At the end of the article, we see this paragraph.

bq. [Sienna Miller] who is in town shooting the screen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, called the city a name that sounds like Pittsburgh, but contains an expletive.

That’s not too surprising. In fact this is one of the instances of taboo avoidance that Zwicky mentions. At risk of engaging in my own little piece of taboo avoidance, I will just “link to”: the article and note the quote from Miller in its fourth paragraph, rather than reprint it. I’ve worked on publications with several different standards with respect to taboo language. But I’ve never seen standards quite exactly like what the SMH seems to be using.



Matt Weiner 10.10.06 at 10:05 am

The standard is probably “Don’t even quote words that will bring down the wrath of Pittsburgh’s loyal army!” Related, pwnage from the Post-Gazette’s headline writer.


Jasper Milvain 10.10.06 at 10:30 am

There’s another possibility: the writer could use Miller’s word if they wanted, but thinks doing it this way is funnier. Polysyllabic humour, and all that.


Rich B. 10.10.06 at 10:34 am

It’s a pretty clear standard. Profanity is okay. Profanity that insults an identifiable person or group is not.

It is actually a very sensible standard, although it requires more thought than simply running your article through a language checker.

In other words, her quote in paragraph 4 would be omitted if it were in reference to the Neanderthals residing in Norfolk, VA.


Ginger Yellow 10.10.06 at 10:37 am

This is a pet peeve of mine. It’s the thing I hate most about the NYT (more than the whole Miller-Chalabi-Plame thing, seriously). The worst offenders, though, have to be the British tabloids, especially the Sun. We’re talking about papers whose entire news agenda is sex scandals described in explicit detail, one of which features topless models on a daily basis, yet who refuse to print even relatively expletives like “piss” because they are “family newspapers”. I don’t mind publications banning their own writers from using swearwords – although I think it betrays a mindset that would rather hide unpleasant things under the carpet than address them directely – but to refuse to quote them at all is abusrd. Are the readers of the Washington Post really so cosseted that they will cancel their subscriptions on sight of a “shit” or a “fuck”?

How did the SMH report the infamous Richard Mottram outburst? How did the NYT report it, for that matter? What’s the point of covering that story at all if you’re not going to quote the exact words? They are the very essence of the story.


astrongmaybe 10.10.06 at 10:45 am

When I was about eight, we had a schoolteacher who banned the use of “sugar” as an expletive, since he said we all knew what it was standing in for. I’m not sure we all did, actually – it puzzled me at the time – but looking back it seems admirably consistent. Kind of eccentric, though.


Ken Houghton 10.10.06 at 11:09 am

Where it gets “fun” is when the expletive is germaine to the discussion.

There were many articles in the NYT, The New Yorker, and multiple other places about the controversy after Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin” was debuted. Extensive text and discussion, with most people probably wondering what about the song was so offensive to the police officers who heard it.

There’s a bootleg available from the Atlanta shows at which the song was debuted; anyone who has heard it would understand why the offense was taken. (The SMH would have published the lyric, judging by ‘graf four.)

To his credit, the phrase was taken out of the song after the Atlanta shows, replaced by a silence that focussed and strengthened the impact of the song.


Brian 10.10.06 at 11:09 am

I’d have thought that if the SMH wanted to avoid the wrath of Pittsburgh’s loyal army, they wouldn’t want to cover up for its detractors. But maybe this will keep the Pittsburghese from attacking Sydney, which would be nice.

I wasn’t able to find *any* references to Richard Mottram in the SMH, so I don’t know how they covered it. I think that generally they’ve been pretty liberal about what they print in quotes. The real surprise was that they didn’t print Miller’s new name for Pittsburgh.


Jasper Milvain 10.10.06 at 11:10 am

Ginger Yellow: You’re entirely right. But I’d miss what you can learn about each paper from the shape of its bans. The Daily Mail will print “bitch” in full, but requires an asterisk in “fart”.


JRoth 10.10.06 at 11:48 am

The aforemntioned hometown paper goes even farther in making clear what Ms. Miller said:

In an article in Rolling Stone magazine that hits newsstands today, Miss Miller refers to the town as something that starts with “sh” and rhymes with “Pittsburgh.”

I mean, at that point, other than “shurgh,” there’s only one option, right? So what’s with the extreme unsubtlety?

On a related note, the Post-Gazette also has a very gentle policy regarding sports quotes: you’d be amazed how many players [stink]. And every once in awhile, I actually can’t figure out what has been replaced with some 3rd grade expression.


Eszter 10.10.06 at 11:50 am

I thought it was amusing that in the network TV version of Forrest Gump the famous quote became “It Happens”. Not only are the words changed in the conversation, the bumper sticker is “fixed” as well.


Matt Weiner 10.10.06 at 12:22 pm

I mean, at that point, other than “shurgh,” there’s only one option, right?

Schlitzburgh, an unconscionable slur on the taste in beer of the home of Iron City? (“Shurgh” doesn’t really rhyme, since it’s lacking the stressed syllable.)


Nick 10.10.06 at 12:46 pm

I’m more surprised by Ms Miller’s frank admission that she & Mr Law are both ‘fucking animals’. Though she fails to disclose which species is the lucky object of her passion, I believe that this practice is still illegal in a number of states. Perhaps Pennsylvania is not one of them?


Steve 10.10.06 at 12:49 pm

What’s your opinion on the printing of the word n*****? Print it fully? Asterisk it? Indirectly refer to it? And is your opinion consistent with s*** or f***?



JR 10.10.06 at 1:26 pm

Since the writer intends to communicate the word “shit,” and the reader perceives the word “shit,” what is the point? The only thing that is unullied here is the newsprint.


abb1 10.10.06 at 2:00 pm

I’m more surprised by Ms Miller’s frank admission that she & Mr Law are both ‘fucking animals’.

Oddly enough (or not), another actress today is reported saying exactly the same:

“I do think on some basic level we are animals, and by instinct we kind of breed accordingly,” she says. “But as much as I believe that, I work really hard when I’m in a relationship to make it work in a monogamous way.”

Johansson also encourages testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Sounds like being an animal might be the latest fad in these circles.


The Continental Op 10.10.06 at 4:02 pm

I think Jasper Milvain (comment no. 2) is right — the paper was probably trying to be funny. Sort of like calling someone “the south facing end of a northbound horse”, when you mean “horse’s ass”. That’s the only sensible way I can reconcile it with the quote about “fucking animals.”

The version of the story I initially saw just said that Miller’s epithet “rhymes with Pittsburgh”. That left me stumped for an embarassingly long while.

In reply to Nick (comment no. 12) — I believe Pennsylvania’s esteemed Senator Rick Santorum has had something to say on the subject!


will u. 10.10.06 at 7:16 pm

Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I suspect Miss Miller’s “gaffe” was actually a calculated PR move, since I had no idea who she was before this incident. I’m sure zero Pittsburghers recognized her in that hotel bar.


nick s 10.11.06 at 1:57 am

The British standard is interesting: the broadsheets tend to print expletives in full (the Graun and Indy certainly do) while the tabloids are much more prudish about such things: you may see tits in the Currant Bun, but never read the word in full.

Anyway, count me with those who see it not as editorial policy at work but an attempt to get the reader to stop, put in a second’s thought and smile at having done so.


Syd Webb 10.11.06 at 5:33 am

david tiley wrote:

Online publications with an email component are much more circumspect, because of spam, which creates a sense of extremely a***ly retentive prudishness.

Makes sense to me. The hard-copy SMH is less hung-up. Looking at today’s copy (11/10/2006) which I have in front of me, on page 18 there’s a piece entitled Ain’t life the Pitts? The first paragraph reads:

In her recent interview with Rolling Stone, Sienna Miller attacked monogamy as “over-rated”, insisting that we’re “all f–king animals”. Yawn. Comments about monogamy being passe are so passe. The real outrage came when she trashed the city of Pittsburgh, where she is currently filming a movie, by referring to it as “Shitsburgh”.

So while there’s still the coy hyphens in ‘f–king’ we’re able to have the uncensored ‘Shitsburgh’. Compare and contrast with an irreverent news e-mail service, that has to refer to ‘sex’ as ‘s*x’ in order to get past their subscribers spam filters.

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