August 1, 2008

Let's talk about chicks, man

Here's a new one for the self-censorship files. Yesterday's New York Times featured an entertaining, not-too-overreaching trend story about cauliflower ear as a badge of cool among ultimate fighters. This is the part that set my Spidey-sense tingling.

"Itís definitely part of the culture," said Dr. John H. Park, a physical therapist in Rockville, Md., who specializes in treating M.M.A. participants. "They say, 'Chicks dig that stuff because they know youíre a fighter.'"

A familiar chasm separates what women dig from what dudes imagine women dig. But for mixed martial arts, a combination of boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu that has found favor among young men, cauliflower ear has assumed a place alongside such evocative conditions as torn elbow ligaments in pitchers, knee tendinitis in marathon runners and torn anterior cruciate ligaments in female basketball players.

Clearly, the sentence following the quote is supposed to read, "A familiar chasm separates what chicks dig from what dudes imagine chicks dig." Changing it to "women" renders the sentence awkward if not pointless, especially when "dudes" is left in place. And indeed, reporter Michael Brick confirmed for me that he had initially written it that way. "But hey," he adds, "didn't somebody once say you should never call broads 'chicks'?"

So "chick" is one of those epithets that the Times will quote other people using, but will not use itself. That rule has applied at least since 1945, when the author of a profile of Shirley Temple wrote, "At 16, Miss Temple is a chic chick. (That's her language, not mine.)" (Incidentally, the next sentence is, "She is five feet two and she won't tell her weight, which is well distributed." Way to keep it classy.)

This makes "chick" less offensive than "nigga" or (as far as I can tell) "bitch," which can't be printed at all. But it's still touchy and not, in the Times' view, simply a female equivalent of "dude." Curiously, the paper has used the phrases "chick lit" and "chick flick" countless times, despite occasional grumblings.

On his blog this week, NYT Ombudsman Clark Hoyt publishes several letters chastising him for his mealy-mouthed defense of censorship in the "nuts" affair. You've heard most of the arguments from me before. Kim de Riel offers the most pithy rule of thumb: "If you canít say what they said, donít even say they said it. If itís too important to ignore, itís too important to censor." But Charles J. Smith makes a further point regarding the use of asterisks or dashes:

A basic principle of linguistics: if you have a word in mind and display some symbols to your audience so that the audience realizes what you meant to write, then you have communicated the word to them. Not actually printing the missing letters is a trick to give the illusion of civility, while allowing the ďunprintableĒ language to be communicated just as clearly as if it were spelled out.

This fussy preservation of the appearance of civility amounts to hypocrisy.

Finally, here's a 1904 NYT headline, from the "more innocent times" department.


Posted by Daniel Radosh


Did the article say what the Pussy Nurses chick was brooding over?

Daniel - As you know, I enjoy this series, and you've certainly staked out some worthwhile ground this area. But:

To some extent I think you're conflating a newspaper's own style rules, which may or may not be based strictly on offensiveness, with self-censorship. That is, a news operation may choose to avoid slangy language that's outside its style in one case (e.g. referring to individuals as "chicks" or, let's say, "hombres") but may be kosher in another (e.g. "chick" as adjective in a regularly used phrase).

In this case, while the copy editing was ham-fisted, it could probably have been done within the Times style by keeping the first ref in quotes:

A familiar chasm separates "what chicks dig" from what dudes imagine chicks dig.

To the average reader this makes it clear that the second part of the sentence is meant to be taken in the voice of the guy quoted rather than reflecting the word choice of the writer. Whether this would fly at the Times may be debatable, but it would work at a great many papers. The unassailably correct version that, while wussy, would still be preferable to changing "chick" to "woman" would be to put that second "chicks dig" in quotes as well.

Your solution is elegant. But I strongly suspect that the reason for the change was not simply to avoid slangy language in accordance with Times style but to avoid a term that could give offense. Otherwise, why is "dudes" (a good equivalent of "hombres") untouched?

In fairness yesterday's Times did have a piece about a guy running an indie music festival in L.A. called "F Yeah."

I was waiting for: "He administers a music festival whose name evokes a vulgarity commonly associated with reproductively activity involving a male placing his erect penis inside the virginal cavity of a consenting female."

But NO! They had the balls to say "F Yeah." (Slow movement is still progress, I always say.)

Fucking Times editors are a bunch of pussies. And liars. And racist ass-licking whores of the ruling regime.

Daniel - I was just pointing out that some slang can be offensive in one context while not in another. Calling a homosexual "a gay" would be considered offensive in most papers, whereas mentioning "a gay film festival" (or even "a gay man") would not.

From the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, in an article about "American Teen":

''I was just doing what I had to do at the time, I didn't really think I was being brave,'' Hannah says, sitting in her grandma's cluttered Warsaw house, eating applesauce out of the little plastic cups usually reserved for preschoolers. ''But I look back on that and I think, Man, I had some b---s.''

Maybe I'm a dope, but that took me days to figure out. The print version has just one long dash, not the three hyphens of the online version, which was a clue of course.

"Balls"?? Jeez, no wonder I couldn't figure it out. Can't you even say that in prime time TV these days?

EW has always had incomprehensible self-censorship, letting "shit" slip by multiple times in an interview on one page and deleting it in another story pages away.

(And, BTW, EW's redesign s---s.)

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