How to Get Curse Words Into America's Greatest Newspapers

The New York Times quietly loosened its strict standards on profanity last year in an update of its style guide, editor Phil Corbett wrote in an email to The Wire. Still, The Times is getting pushed to loosen those rules even further.

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The New York Times quietly loosened its strict standards on profanities last year in an update of its style guide, but there are still people who would like to see the stuffy old newspapers of yesterday relax a little bit more.

"As part of an overall updating of our stylebook last year, we did revise our entry on obscenity and vulgarity," associate managing editor for standards Phil Corbett explained to The Wire in an email. "The new version allows for a wider range of exceptions in cases where an offensive term is central to a news story." Part of the updated style guide now reads as follows:

If the precise nature of an obscenity, vulgarity or other offensive expression is essential to the reader’s understanding of a newsworthy event — not merely to convey color or emotion — editors should consider using the term or a close paraphrase.

Note that the update says that a profanity that is deemed essential need only be considered or paraphrased. They are not necessarily included, even if they are central to the story. There are still some words that are too hot for the Gray Lady.

Because of those rules, The Times has sometimes resorted to wordplay that confuses more often than it helps. In late January, for example, The Wire's own Allie Jones examined the many, many ways The Times has avoided writing "vagina" or "pubic hair" over the years. Some of the approved solutions — "once-neglected hinterland of female beauty," for example — created more questions than they answered.

The issue came up again on Sunday, thanks to an op-ed in The Times by Jesse Sheidlower. The author of the book The F-Word, excoriated the newspaper for obscuring actual information by not allowing profanities. "Our society’s comfort level with offensive language and content has drastically shifted over the past few decades, but the stance of our news media has barely changed at all," he writes. By hiding behind odd phrasing, The Times is hurting its audience, he argues. It's a theme other writers have hit on in the past, arguing that the awkwardly elaborate pains the paper often takes to avoid saying something dirty only draws more attention to the obscenity, and sometimes leaves the reader more confused or less informed.

Another famously polite paper is The Wall Street Journal, although they have also recently admitted to relaxing a bit. Editors on the Style & Substance blog noted on Monday that the WSJ now allows "suck" and "ass" in interviewed quotes on its pages. That wasn't the case as recently as 2007, the story notes. "We still want to be tasteful, but we also want to as much as possible reflect how people speak in this era,” standards editor Neal Lipschutz said. Stories with the word "ass" have popped up recently in the paper, such as in articles including the quotes "ass-whipping" and an email reading "We kicked ass!"

Combining the WSJ changes and Sheidlower's op-ed along with the criticism from Times public editor Margaret Sullivan in January, and there's a growing push to include more profanities — or more accuracy, really — in its pages.

The Times' updated style guide still encourages writers to avoid the offending quote when possible, and actually offers specific examples for journalists to use. "Instead, in most cases, offer a general description: a vulgar expressiona crude epitheta vulgar sexual term," the style guide reads. "If more specificity is needed for comprehension, use a straightforward description or paraphrase: He used a crude term in place of 'stuff'She uttered a vulgar equivalent for 'nonsense'He used an offensive term for female genitalia."

Supposedly, these help to balance clarity and appropriateness. But the problem remains that it's not always clear whether the "offensive term term for female genitalia" refers to "pussy" — which is much more acceptable in modern language see: Pussy Riot — or something far more crude. If an interview subject chose to use a word like "cunt," that would tell you something very different about them.

Still, the updated style guide does give wider allowance to "milder" profanity, including "hells" and "damns." Don't get your hopes too high, though. "But the reason should still be clear and the rationing stringent." Darn it, Times, when the heck will you allow more cussing?

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.