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.
"It’s 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 you’re 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 can’t say what they said, don’t even say they said it. If it’s too important to ignore, it’s 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 “unprintable” 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.