[UPDATED] What’s that ‘PG-rated expletive,’ New York Times?


A story
in today’s New York Times notes that Texas politician Jerry Patterson was once quoted in the Houston Chronicle “using a PG-rated expletive” in reference to a state lawmaker.

The story doesn’t mention the expletive, and Fast Company senior editor Jason Feifer has a problem with that. He tells Romenesko readers:

Using a PG-rated expletive? The Times is acknowledging that these words aren’t that bad, and yet it still won’t quote them? What, you might wonder, was this not-very-bad-but-still-unprintable language?

The story in question is here. And the expletive in question is apparently “screw you.”

Screw you! That’s pretty common stuff. Pedestrian. Every second grader in America knows it. In fact, a Times archive search reveals many past usages of quoting someone saying “screw you.”

Feifer points out that the Times has used “screw you” in many stories, including this magazine piece, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?”; and this story on New York Daily News editor Colin Myler.

“I am a passionate proponent of printed profanity — not excessive and not simply for the sake of tastelessness,” writes Feifer, “but where appropriate, because if someone speaks with strength and conviction and uses a strong word (which is what happens in the real world, the one the press is supposed to be holding a mirror up to) then that word needs to be repeated, letter for letter, in truth, in trust, without fear, like everything else we report.

“I am proud that, when I was an editor at Men’s Health, I ushered in the magazine’s first usage of the word “motherfucker.” (It was in an essay I commissioned by Yann Martel.) And at every publication I’ve ever worked at – including where I currently at, as a senior editor at Fast Company – I push for it.”

UPDATE: Times national editor Sam Sifton sends this email:

Jason wins; he guessed correctly [that “screw you” was the expletive]. The reason we shy away from the PG “screw you” is because it is a clear stand-in for an R-rated phrase. Of course, we might have dropped the reference to Patterson’s quote altogether. But we thought it was worth mentioning as a way to show how colorful he can be.

Sam Sifton

A search of our archives is anyway not at all a surefire way to “prove” that we are either prudish or inconsistent. If we printed an “unprintable” phrase because no one said not to, that doesn’t mean we should have printed it in the first place. Reporters use clip files all the time to try to prove that, “We did it once so we can do it in my case.” Editors are forever explaining that archives are not precedent. They are sometimes our mistakes, written in stone. We have a million guidelines on usage around here. Some have been updated for the way language has evolved and some remain in place, perhaps as a bulwark against too much evolution in a family paper with a general circulation. If the penalty for that is a letter of protest from Jason Feifer, that’s okay by me. It beats hearing from my mom, which if we’d gone the other way
would have happened for sure.

* Candidate Jerry Patterson kicks a spur into Texas politics (New York Times)

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