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More on #@!*

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April November 9, 2008 06:52 PM

Just as I was finishing up today's column about the swearing-on-TV case before the Supreme Court, Geoff Nunberg weighed in at Language Log on the side (theoretically) of the FCC, arguing that the F-word "can only work in its figurative meanings if it remains dirty in its literal meaning."

[When cultural liberals] uphold people's right to use this sort of language in public against the attempts to censor or limit it, they think of themselves not just as defending free speech, but as striking a blow against sexual repression and hypocrisy.

But taboo words have deeper roots, he thinks.

[D]irty words are magic spells that conjure up their references. We first learn about dirty words at an age when we still believe literally in magic, and I don't think anything we learn afterwards palliates their irrational power. That's why we behave as if we could render them inefficacious by the simple expedient of using asterisks in place of some of their letters -- magical spells have no power unless you say them just so.

Not all of the (several dozen) commenters are persuaded, but it's a terrific discussion.

If you missed the NPR interview on this topic with Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the OED and author of "The F-Word," hear it here.

And for another funny (semi-)dirty-word discussion, see John McIntyre's blog, here and here, on the brouhaha that ensued after his employer, the Baltimore Sun Group, published an issue of its youth-oriented free tabloid, B, with the one-word headline "Douchebag!" There's more to the story, he swears -- and demonstrates -- than "Those Damn Kids/Those Old Crocks predictabilities."

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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