Sunday, August 16, 2015

How Do You Wash Out A Newspaper With A Bar Of Soap?

Today, Yoda offers a meditation on male bovine excrement in the print media. The result is laughably pungent. PU!! If this is (fair & balanced) linguistic analysis, so be it.

[x CHE/Lingua Franca
The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy
By Yoda (Ben Jagoda)

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August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivered a monologue on the theme of bullshit, a word he used over and over in the span of a few minutes.”

The Times’s history with this and related words is interesting. In 1970, the legendary reporter J. Anthony Lukas was covering the trial of the Chicago Seven. In response to a police officer’s testimony, one of the defendants, David Dellinger, shouted out, “Bullshit!” Lukas knew the ejaculation was relevant, striking, and dramatic, but his editors, mindful of the paper’s “All the News That’s Fit to Print” motto, wouldn’t let him use it. Lukas’s solution was to characterize the term as “a barnyard epithet.

Incidentally, although Lukas is commonly credited with inventing the euphemism, a contributor to the Linguistlist listserv found a 1960 use in an Iowa newspaper: “But we trust that behind the scenes they are doing something more realistic. They might, for instance, remind Mr. K. [Nikita Khrushchev] that his barnyard epithets are hardly conducive to friendly talks.”

In any case, the formulation is elegant and has proved durable, especially in the Times, where it has appeared 87 times. Most recently, the paper last year referred to “a report that an Obama administration official used a barnyard epithet defying Hebrew translation to refer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

But “barnyard epithet” has a problem. It could refer to one of three things, each of which is slightly different: bullshit, horseshit, and chickenshit. Bullshit and horseshit are admittedly similar, but the former can have a praiseworthy connotation — as in “bullshit artist” — the latter lacks. “Chickenshit” — which was the word used by the Obama administration official — has two different meanings. The first refers to cowardice and the second, a favorite of World War II soldiers, was memorably adumbrated by Paul Fussell in his book Wartime (1969):

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige; sadism thinly disguised as necessary discipline; a constant “paying off of old scores”; and insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances.

The Times’s decorum on this issue led to awkward moments, notably in 2005, when the Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt published a slim book called On Bullshit. The Times’s initial tack was to ignore it, but that proved untenable when it climbed to the newspaper’s best-seller list and remained there for 27 weeks. On the list, the title was given as On Bull. Elsewhere in the paper, it was referred to as On Bull—-. In a profile of Frankfurt, bullshit was referred to, oddly, as “[bull].”

The change in policy has come at the right time. As the success of Frankfurt’s book indicated, bullshit is a growing problem in our culture and it should be referred to by its actual name. The Times reporter Dave Itzkoff posted on Twitter a transcript of Jon Stewart’s closing remarks, and it’s worth checking out. Stewart noted that we are subject to increasing amounts of “premeditated, institutional bullshit, designed to obscure and distract.” He concluded with some “good news”:

The bullshitters have gotten pretty lazy, and their work is easily detected. And looking for it is kind of a pleasant way to pass the time — like an I-Spy of bullshit. So I say to you tonight, friends, the best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something.

To my mind, nothing could be more fit to print than that. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor (with Kevin Kerrane) of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

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