A fan of our self-censorship series points out an interview with The Daily Show's Jason Jones in today's New York Times ArtsBeat blog that replaces the word fart with [flatulence]. The interview is pegged to a Daily Show segment about how the Times is a lumbering and increasingly irrelevant dinosaur of interest only to octogenarians, and while the policy of refusing to print the word fart didn't specifically come up, I can't imagine it helps.
Although in fact this might not be policy so much as an oppressive culture of self-censorship that has writers and editors cowed beyond even what's necessary. After all, it's not like the paper never prints the word fart. It first did so at least as far back as 1972 in an essay on Samuel Beckett that quotes a monologue by the playwright in which the word is used six times. For good measure, the author of the essay then repeats it twice more in his discussion of the work. Ironically, the headline on the essay is "As Close to Silence as a Man Can Get."
And just a couple of months ago, there it is again in another essay about Beckett, this time from one of his letters regarding "a sebaceous cyst in my anus, which happily a fart swept away before it became operable.” The writer did precede this quote with "brace yourself," for which some readers may actually be grateful, and which in any case is preferable to bleeping or paraphrasing.
I say fart appeared in the paper "at least" as far back as 1972 because the Times search engine returns more than 10,000 hits on the word fart, most due to misfires in what is apparently an automated process of rendering printed text into digital files. That is, most of the farts in the history of the paper have actually been parts, facts and forts. Sadly, therefore, the search engine is incorrect that the word appears in a World War One dispatch headlined Great Gas Attack by Foe.
But again, the Times has laid its share of intentional farts. William Grimes let one fly in a book review last December, as did Jim Holt last July. Virginia Heffernan squeaked one into the Magazine in February 08.
And those were in the more strict printed paper. Times bloggers cut the cheese even more regularly. Fart has been in the Wordplay blog, the Bats blog, the New Old Age blog, and even in a headline on the Freakanomics blog. On a related note, how many fucking blogs does the New York Times have?
Apparently the Times also gives more leeway to its non-original content, as when it posted the first chapter of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, with a whole opening paragraph about farts. I've never read the book, but all of a sudden the title makes a lot more sense. Also, the paper's movie listings reprint an AMG review of the 2000 comedy F.A.R.T., although apparently the film (I can't believe you don't remember it) was also released under the title Big Wind on Campus, which is how the NYT officially catalogs it.
And it is in this area that the paper's overseers may wish there were some more oversight. Because it turns out that if you know what to search for — say, the 1974 Belgian softcore comedy Erotic Diary of a Lumberjack (an old Skinemax staple, SFW) — you can find trailers (NSFW) featuring not just a couple of naughty words like fart but simulated sex and full-frontal nudity. Next time you see a demure refusal to print an "obscene" word on the web site of the family newspaper, you can have a chuckle at the knowledge that this is only a click away on the same site.