By Joe Diorio
New York Times reporter J. Anthony Lukas found himself in a linguistic pickle 50 years ago while covering the trial of protesters accused of disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The defendants continuously shouted “bullshit” in court, causing more than a little consternation amongst the prosecutors, judge, and everyone else present.
“When the time came to file my story, I realized the trial that day was spent debating the use of a word The Times wouldn’t print,” Lukas recalled. The New York Times may consider itself the newspaper of record, but not all the news was fit to print in the late 1960s.
Lukas, who died in 1997, solved his dilemma by changing the word “bullshit” to “a barnyard epithet.” That phrase became the title of his 1970 book about the trial of the Chicago 8.
A half century later The Daily Tar Heel, the independent newspaper of the University of North Carolina, had no hesitation over printing an obscenity when, on August 18, it described UNC’s efforts to reopen the school amid the COVID-19 pandemic this way: UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.
The message was abundantly clear. Trying to open the campus amid the worst viral pandemic in over 100 years was not working. The same day that headline appeared, UNC decided to switch to online classes only.
There is no question that the intended message was delivered. But was the delivery vehicle – use of a vulgar term in print – the best grammatical avenue to take? To be clear, I am not criticizing The Daily Tar Heel. Anyone who knows me knows I am no altar boy when it comes to how I talk. Also, clusterfuck is indeed a word. Its first usage, according to Merriam-Webster, was in 1969 … probably describing The New York Times’ internal debates over printing the word “bullshit,” but there I go digressing again.
Most readers applauded The Daily Tar Heel’s choice of words. “I preach you shouldn’t swear in news copy,” one reader posted on Facebook. “However, if you choose to do it, it must serve a narrative purpose, punctuating and lending urgency to your point. I’d say these kids got it absolutely right.”
“Cursing, if you choose to employ it, should be oral,” says Neill Borowski, owner and editor of the online news site 70and73.com and a former college newspaper editor. “When you utter the f-word, it comes and goes in an instant. Any shock tends to be short-lived. In a news headline, it’s in front of you and doesn’t go away. It’s like uttering the curse over and over.”
Another Facebook member posted about the headline and included a photo of abandoned newspaper vending boxes in her neighborhood. She wrote, “It’s sad that this era of local news is behind us, though given the amazing reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, I’m hopeful that journalism isn’t dead.”
Editor’s note: In the spirit of good reporting, I did try to get a comment from The Daily Tar Heel, reaching out to the editors via twitter, email, LinkedIn, Facebook, and this age-old communications tool called the telephone. No one responded.
Formerly known as
After scores of accusations that the team’s name is racially insensitive, the National Football League franchise in Washington, D.C. on July 13 announced it was dropping the name “Redskins.” No new name has emerged; the team will simply be known as “Washington” for the 2020 NFL season.
But that did not deter local television news anchors, one of whom in Nashville delivered the news on August 17 about the Washington team hiring its first Black head of football operations by leading in to the story saying, “the team formerly known as the Washington Redskins today …” It is interesting that the news anchor used the team’s old name to identify it. I mean, a sports story wouldn’t identify the Tennessee Titans of the NFL by calling them “the team formerly known as the Tennessee Oilers” would they?
(For the football-impaired among us, Nashville’s NFL franchise originated in Houston, Texas in 1960 under the name Houston Oilers. The team moved to Tennessee in 1997 and for two seasons they were known as the Tennessee Oilers until changing the name to Tennessee Titans in 1999.)
Before anyone emails me saying “well, WHAT should the local news guy say?” consider what David Muir on ABC News did that very same day when he reported the same story by saying, “Washington, D.C.’s NFL franchise today …” Options, folks. There are always options.
“An” historic, or “a” historic?
The pandemic has basically destroyed my ability to get a good night’s sleep, so I find myself staying up to watch lots of late night television. This made me take note of the fact that Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, prefers to use the term “an historic” rather than “a historic” in his monologue. This is particularly curious to me because Colbert, who is doing his show in an office sans live audience, now comically refers to his program as “A Late Show” rather than “The Late Show.”
Merriam-Webster says both “an” and “a” preceding the word “historic” is acceptable, although “a” is almost four times more common than “an.” Maybe Colbert prefers the role of outlier.
Let’s write carefully out there, people.
Joe Diorio is a writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.
One thought on “Profanity. A real clusterf@#k for print”
Such a smart blog! Regarding the first section, I highly recommend On Cussing, a field guide by Katherine Dunn (the late author of Geek Love), whose father’s favorite sentence was Fuck the Fuckity Fuckin’ Fucker. In exploring the power of bad language, the book notes that “researchers now believe swear words are stored in the ancient, reptilian amygdala, which is the seat of automatic actions, breathing, heartbeat, as well as reflexes, hunger, thirst, lust, and most significantly, emotion. This is why people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of brain injury can still swear even when all other language is lost.”