My elderly aunt, God bless her, taught English at a Northern Virginia high school for many years. Highly educated, erudite and funny, she remains a paragon of rectitude when it comes to language.
She used to tell the story of being in a movie theater. On the screen was Lawrence Olivier. The script had him utter the “f” word right into the camera. By then, audiences were mostly used to such language in mainstream films. But my aunt chuckles that she alone let out a loud, horrified gasp. That word from that actor! Her shock produced a chuckle in the audience.
President Donald Trump apparently said a vulgar word yesterday. The context in which he said has touched off, let’s say, quite a debate. I was wondering how the media would handle this. Specifically, amid the general decline of decorum, would they print the word?
WTOP.com had it spelled out in a big headline. So did Huffpost and other online-only entities. The Washington Post, which first reported the comment, spelled it out in the story and headline. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times, chose to use it only in the text of their stories.
The Times of London also used it in online copy. But it was below the electronic fold. Their top story was how the crown jewels had been hidden from the Nazis in a biscuit tin.
NPR.com primly used asterisks in its copy to stand in for the word.
I give a thumbs up to NPR, personally.
Huffpost also carries a hilarious video composite of CNN talking head Wolf Blitzer struggling to not say the word on the air. You won’t hear it on radio or broadcast TV. FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from using foul language. Most wouldn’t use it on air even if they could. Blitzer could have, because CNN is cable. (Satellite and cable don’t come under the same rules.) Blitzer’s colleague Anderson Cooper did in fact say it during an impassioned defense of Haiti.
What’s going on at ground level in people’s offices? I’m betting it’s talked about, but not repeated. Given rules and real sensitivities about hostile work environments, the average office has more decorum than decades ago. That’s an irony. Politicians, entertainment and media have become more vulgar. For instance, former Virginia Governor Terry McAullife (D) said he’d punch out Trump if the president got too close in a debate. Sounds like an episode of Celebrity Deathmatch.
Presidents and other politicians have always used colorful language. At least since the post World War II era. Normally, it was behind closed doors. If the press heard it, they didn’t report it. Tapes much later revealed Richard Nixon made nasty references to Jews. Lyndon Johnson regularly used the “n” word.
I’ve found career feds have more discretion and sense of decorum than the political leadership they sometimes end up working for. What’s the norm in your office?
Context can be everything in language. In the Pentagon, officers refer to civilians as Mr. or Ms. Civilians refer to officers by their rank. I doubt the average naval officer talks in the officers’ mess at sea the same way he or she does in the assistant secretary’s office.
Standards evolve. Much later, my aunt was walking to an elevator in RFK Stadium before a Redskins-Cowboys game. A knot of male Cowboys fans went around her and filled up the elevator. Outraged, just before the doors closed, she leaned forward and shouted, “Dallas sucks!”