Curses foiled again

 How do you write about words we can’t really use in a family newspaper without using those words?
Your guess is as good as mine, but here goes nothin’.
I know from whence I speak.

I know from whence I speak.


Anyone who’s banged a thumb with a hammer or had an 18-pound cat with very sharp claws try and fail to jump onto your bare legs has probably uttered a swear word or two, or at the very least a pained nonsensical Yosemite Sam outburst (and you were probably thinking a few swear words even if you didn’t say them out loud).

Just as other words and their uses have evolved, so have curse words (’scuse me, we’re Southern here: CUSS words). Melissa Mohr, who wrote A Brief History of Swearing, the main title of which I can’t print in the paper (it’s Holy Sh*t), says in a story by Discovery News:

That Lady Emily is such a dirty puzzle. Image from

That Lady Emily is such a dirty puzzle.
Image from

“There’s a sort of Victorian theory that the very first words were swear words. The idea is that swearing is very emotional and [is] used when we’re feeling emotional. That’s when we use swear words. So that the first cries of pain kind of gradually developed into words and that’s the basis of language itself.”

Mohr says there’s evidence of swear words in writing at least as far back as the beginning of the written word, many of which involved religion (there’s that thing about taking God’s name in vain, you know). “That kind of swearing is older than obscene swearing—the sexual and excremental obscenities. Or more recently, the racial slurs.”

Many of the words once considered swear words (like many throughout Chaucer’s works) don’t pack the punch they once did as language has evolved and the original context disappeared.

In cinema for decades, the very puritanical Hays Code dictated what could be done and said.

How Lucy got pregnant is a mystery since she and Ricky slept in twin beds, but they couldn't even say the word. Image found on Mental Floss.

How Lucy got pregnant is a mystery to me since she and Ricky slept in twin beds, but they couldn’t even say the word on I Love Lucy.
Image found on Mental Floss.

On television in 1952, censors wouldn’t allow use of the word “pregnant,” which caused a problem for Lucille Ball, whose pregnancy was written into I Love Lucy, necessitating use of a lot of euphemisms.

I grew up hearing the occasional dirty word, sometimes from the grandma who could—but didn’t always—swear like a sailor and put seven syllables in a certain cuss word (having been born in Texas; it’s in the DNA, apparently), married to the former sailor I never heard cuss. And with three older brothers, any deficit in cuss words I experienced was quickly corrected.

I didn’t swear until I was in college (about the worst I said was “crap”), probably because I didn’t have a reason before then. I don’t do it a lot now, but sometimes … it just has to come out.

But not in the paper.

As a family newspaper, we generally don’t print obscenities, especially those involving bodily functions.

It happens. Image found on

It happens.
Image found on

Deputy Editor Frank Fellone says we use “the two G’s”—“whether it’s germane to the news story or gratuitous.” We err on the side of caution here unless there’s a legitimate journalistic purpose, which is judged on a case-by-case basis using—above all—common sense. You know—that thing that’s far from common nowadays.

In reporting quotes with obscenities, there must be a good reason (not shock value) for using the quote (such as that particular obscenity or the person who said it being the story), and even then we would use asterisks in most cases for the really bad words, which we deployed in a recent John Brummett column about Hillary Clinton picking a fight with Barack Obama over his Iraq policy.

As far as that George Patton quote that occasionally shows up on the editorial page (which I found at least three slightly different verified forms of, as it seems he used that quote more than once), it’s given a little leeway with its use of a certain word (bastard) because of historical value.

george-s-patton-soldier-quote-no-bastard-ever-won-a-war-by-dying-forGenerally though, unless you’re talking about a child conceived and/or born out of wedlock, we won’t use that word on the Voices page, nor will we use that other word usually applied to women—unless you’re talking about a female dog. We don’t much cotton to name-calling, so play nice.

And if your non-swearing-like-a-sailor grandma would smack you upside the head for using a word, don’t use it here, please.

Don’t make me call mine.

Mmmmm ... data kebabs ... can I have mine with a teriyaki glaze and no bell peppers, please? Image from

Mmmmm … data kebabs … can I have mine with a teriyaki glaze and no bell peppers, please (migraines, ya know)?
Image from

A reader pointed out a quote in a news story from last week about “skewered” research results that introduced into her head visions of the speaker barbecuing up some data shish kebabs.

I think we’ve all made such slips of the tongue, especially when tired. One of my now-common sayings around here, for instance, came about because my tongue wouldn’t cooperate one day when I tried to say “Lord have mercy.” Thus, “Lord have Murray” was born (poor Murray).

It’s somewhat akin to “spoonerisms,” which are usually the result of transposed syllables or letters, like “half-warmed fish” rather than “half-formed wish.”

I take my fish fully warmed, thank you very much.  Image found on Miranda Sparkle: random thoughts.

I take my fish fully warmed, thank you very much.
Image found on Miranda Sparkle: random thoughts.

William Archibald Spooner, an Oxford reverend and dean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was reportedly so prone to such verbal slips that the word was coined using his name. What else could you do for a man apt to say things like, “You’ve tasted two worms” (wasted two terms) or “our shoving leopard” (loving shepherd)? Spooner often denied that he made those errors, but his legacy—myth or not—will always be with us as long as our mouths continue to work faster than our brains.

Ah, the dream of a word nerd … to live forever in our language …


8 thoughts on “Curses foiled again

  1. Complex topic, the use of obscenities and such in journalism. There are days I think if I hear one more reporter trying to quote someone directly without using the actual words the person said, I’ll scream. If it’s not verbatim, it’s not a quote. And if it’s a direct quote, then you don’t get to “clean it up” to your liking.

    But it’s late, and if I get going on this particular topic, I’ll never stop.


    • Oh, I know what you mean! 😀

      There are always ways to write around just about anything, but yep, it drives me nuts when someone takes it upon themselves to clean up, insert their own opinion in brackets or paraphrase a quote (keeping the quotation marks, of course). Makes it a lot harder to edit, and to check quotes from the famous and infamous, like those people rewriting Thomas Jefferson to fit whatever agenda they want to promote. I’m always having to fix the quotes others messed up when I edit; a few were none too happy when the real quote was put in. I’m evil … 😉

      A lot of it among professional writers comes down to laziness and/or the idea that they can always say something better than their fellow man. I think there are quite a few who need to head back to J-school and relearn the fundamentals.

      Of course, there are also those who like to “yada yada” quotes to remove context and make it seem like a political opponent said something he didn’t (I’m looking at you, Fox News, Heritage Action, Club for Growth, Senate Majority PAC, etc.) When I’m queen of the world, that ain’t gonna happen. (Insert evil laugh here)


      • I was thinking particularly of when a reporter quotes someone only because that person used a certain expletive, but then in quoting them they substitute asterisks or “f-word” or “n-word.” There’s no point in quoting someone if you aren’t going to QUOTE them. Fully. Every word.

        I know it’s a gray area, but I sometimes feel like if you quote someone directly, then you go ahead and say the word they said. Because they said it, not you. It’s not your choice of language, it was theirs. It can sound pretty silly when adults, talking about adult subjects, continue to dance around someone else’s words by saying “f-word” instead of the word, when everyone knows what the word is. If they are referring to the word as a word, out of context, then they need to say the word. Introducing ambiguities and euphemisms just muddies the waters. It all reminds me of Fonzie talking about being wrong —

        As for professional writers going back to J-school … I’m pretty sure I learned about direct quotes back in junior high or grade school.


      • That’s one of the things we have to weigh as a family newspaper, and most of the time we end up using asterisks if the quote is vital to the story. There’s a weekly here that has a different audience, and it often will use the words without asterisks. The only time I can recall us doing that is when we printed the Starr Report (all that agate, oy, and we had to TYPE it in!!!!), and that was because of the importance of it.

        I remember editing something once where the reporter had put in “f***ing,” but when I checked, the person quoted had actually said “effin'” … gotta love when the speakers do the bleeping for us. 😀

        I think I learned about direct quotes back in grade school, but for a lot of people (including letter-writers), the actual importance doesn’t really sink in. A lot of times, the pro writers who regularly “enhance” quotes have forgotten (or never learned) other journalism basics as well, which doesn’t speak well for the profession. When I was on the copy desk, I suggested several times that we do newsroom-wide refresher courses on libel and other issues every once in a while, but it never happened. Sigh …


      • Based on what I see in media today, J-schools ain’t what they used to be. But then, I’ve read some commentary suggesting they aren’t needed at all.


      • Too true, and a lot of that, I think, has to do with the dumbing down of education in general. We really don’t need a bunch of Fox Newses and MSNBCs, but indications are that that’s what we’re headed for. Knowledge? Overrated!


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