The “Times” Said a Bad, Bad Word

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“[…] fuck[…]”
-The New York Times

Guys! D’you know what the Times said?! It said “fuck”!

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Thanks to some heroic reporting by Laura Miller at Salon, we found out this week that The Gray Lady has dipped her big toe into the pool of off-color vocabulary.

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There’s a fuck-load of caveats to this socio-linguistic watershed, though. The word appeared buried on the 86th page of last weekend’s T Magazine fashion supplement, and only in the context of an excerpt of the first line of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Dissident Gardens. The Times has been dragged kicking and screaming into the second grade. Running out to the playground at recess, secreting itself away behind the jungle gym in the corner by the parking lot with its bff and whispering the fun new word it just learned-but is afraid to say where the teacher might hear.

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Furthermore, according to an update to Miller’s article, this isn’t technically the very first time the Times has printed the word: In those heady days at the end of the last century, the Times reprinted the Starr Report in its entirety, including “fuck” within a direct quotation of Monica Lewinsky.

So, to sum up, since 1851, the paper of record has printed “fuck” just twice. The first time was the Times quoting the Starr Report quoting Lewinsky; the second time was the Times quoting Lethem’s novel. As the paper abandons every shred of civilization, they’ve gone from a second-order quotation to a first-order quotation. Call me when “fuck” appears in the voice of a Times writer, him- or herself. Still, I’ll take what I can get.

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Miller reports that the excerpt of Lethem’s book appears in the print edition, but, surprisingly, not in the online version of the profile. Which makes sense, considering the forbidding taboo against anything dirty ever showing up on the internet.

This isn’t the first report Salon has published on the New York Times potty-mouth beat. Last August, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a rollicking and entertaining story about the ridiculous depths to which the paper has sunk in order to avoid any words unsuitable for children or other sensitive readers. A sample paragraph with some remarkable examples:

Last year, in the first sentence of his review of “The Motherfucker With the Hat,” [Ben] Brantley called it “The play that dare not speak its name,” aka “The ___________ With the Hat.” There’s more. In a story last month about the Fuck! I’m in My Twenties blog, The Times simply called it a “viral blog” in a feature titled “Wash That Blog Out With Soap.” But perhaps the greatest example of all is a 2007 review of hardcore band Fucked Up, known to The Times as “********.”

While I’m clearly covering this with the glee of a giddy 12 year old, the story also marks a legitimate update to a column I wrote for The Clyde Fitch Report in 2011: “About That Art Party Whose Name The New York Times Won’t Print…”

That column was about the Times article profiling downtown performance producer Earl Dax‘s quarterly party called Pussy Faggot! It’s a reliably great event with avant-garde performance art credentials and a focus on community building. (The next edition of Pussy Faggot!, hosted by the incomparable Penny Arcade, takes place on September 12 at The Delancey. Details here and here.)

The Times piece, by Claudia La Rocco, was insightful and positive, yet never mentioned the name of the party the paper cared enough about to send a reporter. La Rocco even used the same “dare not speak its name” chestnut to which Brantley resorted in the quote above. My point was that the paper’s peculiar avoidance of words someone somewhere might find objectionable is arbitrary, inconsistent, paternalistic, unclear and embarrassing.

But now that everything has changed and the Times is learning to curse like a sailor, omissions like “Pussy Faggot!” will perhaps be abandoned like the fusty Victorian relics that they are. I wonder if we can look forward the Times implementing a state-side version of Page 3.

The hero of Miller’s story is Lethem. His delight at the honor of supplying the Times‘ first(-ish) “fuck” is unimpeachably charming. He told Miller that it had just happened by accident, but that, “If I’d had the foresight to make it one of my life’s aspirations, I’d have done so.”

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Now that society is so clearly in precipitous decline, watch out for the reefer madness and above-the-knee skirts that are sure to follow as the eighth and ninth signs of the cultural apocalypse. How the fuck did it come to this?!

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