“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.
The coarsening of our public language has long been a fact of life. Words that a novelist once couldn’t get into print are now common on television. Turns of phrase that people hesitated to use in polite company have become children’s fare.
Newspapers are not immune to this shift, but they do try to draw a line against obscenities and crude language, on the belief that readers recoil at them in their family paper no matter how often they may hear the words elsewhere.
For the copy editor, the mission of vigilance is often clear-cut. If a story quotes a private citizen using a vulgarity when discussing the employment crunch or MBTA fares or the Red Sox, the copy editor can paraphrase, truncate the quote, or remove the sentence entirely.
But the terrain shifts when the speaker is a public official or a candidate for office. Then, editors must balance the desire not to offend with the need to furnish full pictures of our leaders, warts and all.
The considerations have played out many ways over the years.
When the Watergate transcripts revealed President Nixon’s coarser side in 1974, most publications settled on a bracketed “[expletive deleted].” Two years later, Earl Butz was forced to resign as secretary of agriculture for a joke that was universally described as racist and obscene but quoted scarcely anywhere.
By contrast, when two Boston city councilors exchanged vulgar words at a public hearing in May 1991, The Globe left nothing to the imagination in a front page story headlined “The discourse turns coarse in council” (although the offending words themselves did not appear until the continuation of the story on an inside page).
More mildly, when a microphone caught President Bush describing a New York Times reporter as a “major league a------“ in 2004, the Globe over time repeated the quote seven times.
Including those seven references, the Globe has seen fit to use the term 48 times since 1977. We have also found reason to print an offensive four-letter word 213 times and a more offensive four-letter word on a dozen occasions.
On the heels of all that usage, our latest wrinkle involves Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was reported in a Feb. 2 story as calling a legislator “numbnuts.’’ Hardly the most shocking of terms, but still one that an archives search indicates had never before appeared in the Globe. Some editors argued that it shouldn’t have appeared this time, either, that it was a peripheral matter in a story centering on Christie’s controversial remarks about the civil rights movement. But the prevailing view was that Christie is a national political figure, currently playing a role in the Republican presidential campaign and perhaps bound for a larger part in months ahead. If his language says something about his temperament and his governmental style, we shouldn’t be sheltering readers from it.