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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Griping about "gubernatorial"

The word gubernatorial has reared its (ugly?) head again, in a Chicago Tribune column by Eric Zorn and a follow-up post at Language Log. Seems like a good excuse to look productive, since I wrote about the usage history of, and current hostility toward, the word gubernatorial in the Boston Globe just over three years ago. Is the word stilted, as the New York Times alleges? Has Goober Pyle influenced our feelings about it? Facts (as of 2010) and reader-inspired speculation below. 

No love for 'gov'?
(Originally published October 10, 2010, in the Globe Ideas section)

As we count down toward Election Day, more than a few citizens probably share the sentiments of reader Mark Leonard, who e-mailed last week wondering why we have to live with gubernatorial. "It sounds archaic and pompous," he said, and it’s not as if there aren’t alternatives: We could simply switch to "the more obvious governatorial."

And so we could. In fact, English has tried out a number of variations on the "governor" word family. In the 13th century, it borrowed govern from Old French, which eventually gave us governance, government, and, briefly, governator (insert Schwarzenegger joke here). Then, in the 15th century, English went back to the Latin gubernare to form another set of "govern" words -- gubernate, gubernatrix -- of which the sole survivor is gubernatorial.

We really can’t call it archaic -- gubernatorial is only 300 years old, and thriving -- but American critics have called it some other names along the way. Richard Grant White, a hugely popular 19th-century language maven, denounced the word in 1870 as "a clumsy piece of verbal pomposity ... pedantic, uncouth, and outlandish." Thirty years later, Ralcy H. Bell told his readers that only "pedants and 'small potatoes'" flaunted this big word. And Ambrose Bierce, in 1909, called gubernatorial "needless and bombastic." "Leave it to those who call a political office a 'chair,'" he urged. "'Gubernatorial chair' is good enough for them. So is hanging."

Why the ferocity? One possible reason is that gubernatorial was probably coined, and certainly embraced, by Americans. That would have tainted it in the eyes of our insecure language police, who were often anxious about our divergences from British usage. If England had given up on all its gubernator-derived words, why were we sticking with gubernatorial?

One obvious reason is that Americans had increasing numbers of state governors, and thus of elections in need of an adjective. As early as 1848, John Russell Bartlett, in "Americanisms," listed gubernatorial among words "whose origin has grown out of our peculiar institutions, and which consequently are of a permanent nature." (Caucus, lobby, mileage, and bunkum also made his list.) If the British had shared our need for gubernatorial, they too might have kept it current. But this commonsense analysis seems to have eluded the mavens.

As the 20th century marched on, though, Americans stopped judging their language by British usage, and gubernatorial prospered. So I was surprised to find official disapproval still on the books: Just last week, The New York Times’s in-house language guardian, Philip Corbett, objected to the word. "The Times’s stylebook advises against the stilted 'gubernatorial,'" he wrote in his Tuesday blog. "Make it 'Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor' or 'who is running for governor.'"

That "stilted" is the stylebook’s description, and it’s a bit hard to decode; "stilted language" is stiff, high-flown, artificially formal, but what makes a single word "stilted"? Possess, opine, parley, and apprehend have been accused of stiltedness; but while they’re clearly more formal than have, say, talk, and catch, how can you tell -- in the absence of context  -- that they're "stiff" or "pompous"?

Maybe gubernatorial is just too long and lumpy? But if that’s the problem, why aren’t words like gladiatorial, arachnophobia, discombobulation, excommunication, and indefatigable ever accused of pomposity? And you can hardly accuse gubernatorial of hanging out among the toffs and swells of English; if we’re tired of the word, it’s because we encounter it everywhere, as TV and radio and the Web and print media report on the current ... gubernatorial campaign.

In fact, Mark Leonard’s e-mail gave me a whole new theory about our distaste for gubernatorial, because he went on to ask about goober. The words aren’t related, but I started to wonder: What if goober has affected the older word’s reputation?

Goober started out as a Southern word (with African roots) for the peanut, but it soon began to accumulate slang senses. By 1862, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, goober was a synonym for "bumpkin, yokel, simpleton." In the Confederate Army, it was a nickname for soldiers from North Carolina and Georgia. A goober-grabber was a poor white farmer.

But goober didn’t go national until the mid-20th century, when "The Andy Griffith Show" brought us the genial dimwit Goober Pyle. Along with its clipped form, goob, it became a popular term for anyone acting silly or dumb.

So here’s an idea: Maybe our resistance to gubernatorial isn’t related to the old prejudices at all. Maybe it’s just that the ignominy of goober, over the past half-century, has rubbed off on gubernatorial. Other words with the goo sound might also play a part: Gooey, googly, goofball, goofus, goombah, gooney bird ... except for googol, there’s not a lot of dignified restraint to be found among the dictionary’s goo- entries.

Of course, on the other side is the ubiquitous Google, working hard to make us like the sound of goo. That would be nice, because I don’t think gubernatorial is going away, whatever the Times stylebook says.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Canceled vs. postponed

"Cancel" was spiking today in online searches at Merriam-Webster, @KoryStamper reported on Twitter, no doubt because of all the weather-related flight cancellations. That reminded me of a minor but interesting usage debate that I covered, possibly in more detail than it deserves, in The Word. Here's the column, from the Sunday Globe of Dec. 11, 2005.

Cancel those reservations

After a natural gas explosion in Lexington last month, the Globe reported that a special Town Meeting had been "canceled and rescheduled for tonight."

Those verbs triggered a pet-peeve alarm in reader Bill Cowie of Reading. "I always thought that once something was canceled, it was gone, deleted, annulled," he e-mailed. "It no longer existed, so it could not be rescheduled." It would be more proper, he said, and more economical too, to use "the perfectly good word postponed."

Sounds like a plausible complaint, and postpone/cancel is just the sort of word pair the usage police are always trying to help us sort out. But plausible or not, the cancel caveat is not, in fact, a usage rule, or even a usage "rule." Unlike persuade vs. convince, or nauseous vs. nauseated, the cancel/postpone distinction seems to have no recorded usage history; even the most persnickety mavens on my reference shelf fail to decree that canceled must mean "gone forever."

In fact, the only comment I've turned up in print comes from my Globe colleague John Powers, who wrote in 1990 that, among numerous other language failings, "Americans say cancel when they mean postpone." That is, they use cancel to mean both "erase" and "reschedule." And so do Canadians and Australians and Britons: Can they all be wrong?

Cowie's argument -- that the canceled thing "no longer exists" -- reminded me of the old conundrum about the farmer's ax: If he has replaced the handle three times and the head twice, does he still have the same ax? (The ancient version of the problem is the paradox of Theseus' ship, maintained and hence replaced, plank by plank, by the Athenians.) The question is one of definition: What is the "it" that we're canceling?

Take the Lexington case, where the Wednesday meeting was scrubbed and replaced by a Thursday meeting with the same agenda. (Not necessarily the "same" meeting-you can't step in the same river twice, and all that.) If your focus was on the meeting as a calendar entry-an obligation on Wednesday night, when you hoped to see a movie-"it" has been canceled, nullified as surely as the credit line on a canceled Visa card. But if you were concerned with content-the recycling rules or the zoning debate-"it" was the meeting itself, and it has been postponed one day.

The issue isn't always subjective; in baseball, as Cowie noted in his e-mail, a postponed game "counts" as the originally scheduled game, whenever it's played, while a canceled game is one that's never played.

But in everyday life, we have no problem using cancel in what you might call the Filofax sense, to mean "clear a spot on the calendar": We don't care whether the event that once occupied that time slot has been rescheduled, abandoned, or left for later consideration. (And considering that cancel is rooted in the Latin cancelli, meaning "crossbars" or "lattice," and that its first meaning in English was "cross out," that seems fair enough.)

Thus, we say:

My flight was canceled. I'll get to Sarasota or San Diego eventually, but not on a flight with that number and departure time. (Even if the same airline delivers you by the same route an hour later, you never call a different-numbered flight a "postponement.")

I canceled my Thursday haircut appointment. I'll call to reschedule when I get back from Sarasota or San Diego. (Nobody thinks that I mean I'm never going back to that stylist.)

Today's classes have been canceled. (The physics midterm and the quiz on Heraclitus are thus postponed. But the day's scheduled meetings are gone forever, even if you cover the same ground later. The emphasis is on the calendar, not the content of classes.)

We're canceling Sunday brunch and postponing your birthday party. (The first event is generic, a spot on the social calendar; the second is a specific observance.)

Yes, cancel sometimes means "cancel with the intention of rescheduling," or even just "postpone" -- and if you have reservations about that casual usage, you're free to avoid it. But if the ambiguity had ever been a source of confusion, the cancel/postpone caution would be a well-known shibboleth. Apparently it hasn't, because it isn't.


Friday, December 20, 2013

"Growing a business" for (at least) 35 years

Since my esteemed colleague John McIntyre has registered (mildly, in a footnote) an aversion to "growing a business," I thought I'd dig up my previous discussion of the usage. If I'm more tolerant of it than he, it must be because I heard it much earlier, thanks to a stint at a business magazine. Here's what I wrote in the Boston Globe on Dec. 27, 1998, in a Word column on bugbears we should forget about:
Growing pains. Some readers are alarmed by the spread of the transitive grow beyond its agricultural domain. Growing corn and tomatoes is all very well, say Alan Rechel of Belmont [Mass.] and Tom Halsted of Manchester [Mass.], but when did growing a business and growing the economy become part of the language? I shared their pain when I first saw grow used this way (in Inc. magazine, 20 years ago), but I haven't found any good arguments against it, aside from the taint of jargon -- and that will fade with time and use. After all, if you can grow a beard or a crystal, why not a business?
In fact, this sense existed long ago, according to the OED, which gives an example (here modernized) from 1481: "When David had reigned seven years in Hebron, he grew and amended much this city."* So let's look on the bright side: We're not gaining a neologism, we're reclaiming a bit of our linguistic heritage.

*Originally: "Whan dauid had regned vii. yere in Ebron he grewe [Fr. creut] and amended moche this cyte [Jerusalem]." The quote is from Caxton's translation of "Godeffroy of Boloyne, or the Siege and Conqueste of Jerusalem," a 12th-century French account of the first Crusade.