Is it one word or two? If two, does it need a hyphen?

If you want to avoid using an obscenity but need to communicate the word in question, is it better to use ellipses? If so, is “sh…hole” better than “s-hole?”

Should quotation marks be mandatory to indicate The Source in Chief? As the story broke, broadcast reporters and news anchors faced a crossroads: they couldn’t use air quotes so some of them went full -on “sh…le.” Anderson Cooper couldn’t bring himself to cross that bridge, so he said, “s-hole” even as all eight letters crawled across the bottom of the screen beneath his pallid, pained face. Maybe he could have used a phonetic version of the word, with the fricative “th,” — shi-th-ole –as suggested by grammarian Adam Felber on NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me:

In 1972, George Carlin listed the seven words “you can’t say on television” and apart from an occasional slip, always bleeped, they were expunged. For some time now, the bleeping has been accompanied by a wink and eventually; some less curse-y but no less naughty words became standard fare on Comedy Central and elsewhere. “Dick” got by because it’s short for Richard. The double entendre use of “pussy” was a late-night staple because, you know, cats and kitties. But that was before Donald Trump erased all ambiguity.

In this year of 2018, all seven words, and many more, are permitted on premium cable and YouTube, which is television for millions of people.

And now that The Boston Globe, our local “family newspaper” has published the president’s “s—ole,” the rest can’t be far behind.

I’ve been hearing screeds about the coarsening of American discourse my whole life, and while I agree that it’s ugly out there, some of the changes have been positive, even liberating.

In 1986, I used the word “vagina” in a newspaper column about teaching little girls the names of their body parts. My mother was horrified. When I asked what I should have used instead, she said, “Down there.”

By 1996, in her 70s, my mother denied ever saying that. And by then, she had discovered the satisfaction of saying the “s” word when the milk had gone sour or she had trouble threading a needle. She enjoyed the transgression, earned by age and the equivalent in her native French is merde or (for emphasis) merde alors, which can’t compare to the Anglo-Saxon impact of any word that starts with sh and ends with t.

Of course the word of the moment is not merely s-to-the-t; it’s a site-specific modifier used by the Donald to denigrate the whole African continent and a Caribbean island nation. A comment this crude and racist has to disqualify him from public life.

Just kidding!

This is the man who bragged about grabbing “them” by the … vagina.

The Collins Dictionary declared “Fake News” the word of 2017.

2018 is still young. I am praying that another word will take the place of shirthole. Otherwise, we’re forked.

This post was first published January 17  (with links) on WBUR’s Cognoscenti



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