"Maledicta" Favors The Whole F___ing Truth
By Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.
Reinhold Aman says editors who censor profanity are repressed people who "project their own form of mental illness" on readers.
A linguist from Santa Rosa, California, Aman has spent 25 years collecting vulgarities that have appeared in the media. Since 1977, he's published his findings in a 10-volume series, "Maledicta" (Latin for "bad words"), with a new volume due this summer. His new quarterly newsletter, "Maledicta Monitor," now has 1,500 subscribers.
Aman is not the type who would choke on his Cheerios if he came across the F-word in the morning news. His publications monitor everything from obscene graffiti to ethnic slurs to tasteless jokes. His motto: "They say it – we print it." And although he has investigated a hodgepodge of media, he's had it up to his keister with what he considers "prudish" editing at newspapers.
"Editors argue that they run 'family newspapers' even though the few children who read them turn to the sports and comics and TV listings," he says. "If a politician says, 'I don't give a shit,' the kids don't see it anyway."
Aman says the New York Times and former editor Abe "Super Prude" Rosenthal (who once told WJR, "We'll take 'shit' from the president, but nobody else") have been "absolutely the worst" about censoring profanities. The "silly" editors at the Los Angeles Times follow close behind. Last year, for example, Times media critic David Shaw reported that Editor Shelby Coffey "did not deem obscene language essential to the nature of [this] story on [how newspapers handle] obscene language...not even in illustrative examples." Coffey even excised from Shaw's article a profanity the Times had printed in 1974 from the Watergate tapes.
And then there's the Milwaukee Journal, with what Aman calls its "long tradition of prudery." Last year, when New England Patriots owner Victor Kiam allegedly called reporter Lisa Olsen "a classic bitch," the Journal was one of the few publications to substitute dashes for the B-word. In his newsletter, Aman steamed: "The Journal's left-in-the-dark readers will have to read a real newspaper to get the information, or guess whether Kiam called her a whore, broad, hussy or whatever other five-letter word fits." And editors there recently altered a line of dialogue in the cartoon "Bloom County" from "Reagan Sucks" to "Reagan Socks" and in another edition scribbled over the verb.
"One man's good taste is another man's profanity," responds Journal Deputy Managing Editor Howard Fibach. "We don't mind hell or damn, but beyond that...[It isn't language] I'd use around casual acquaintances – which is what our readers are."
Many publications do share one trait: inconsistency. For instance, a Newsweek survey prompted by the Clarence Thomas hearings found that editors there had "spelled out fuck three times in [the past] 16 years, but in the same span has also used f – k, bleep, F'ing and motherf – ."
While anything short of full disclosure incenses Aman, he ranks the various methods used to censor profanities as follows, best to worst:
1. Spell it out . Aman says newspapers have become bolder with words such as fart, piss and ass.
2. Drop vowels (F-ck, sh*t). "If you use f-ck, we all know what it means, so why should spelling it out make anyone more upset?"
3. Drop all letters except the first (F – -, s***).
4. Insert [vulgarity deleted] or [blasphemy deleted]. "At least then the reader has some idea of the genre. 'Expletive deleted' means nothing."
5. Falsify the word (change hell to heck, fuck to fudge). "That method annoys the hell out of me."
6. Employ euphemisms , such as [opposite of father-hater] or [vulgar term for excrement].
7. Substitute all letters except the first with an underline (c____), such as Time magazine does. But Aman protests, "There's a big difference between cocksucker and cunt."
8. Insert ellipses or dingbats ($%@#!). In a column about a college student expelled for yelling racial epithets, Ellen Goodman reported he had shouted "...Jews!" "That's blatantly withholding information from the reader," Aman charges. "When someone is kicked out of school for a hate crime, I want to know what he said."
9. Delete the word altogether . To Aman, a cardinal sin. ###