Words you couldn’t say in The Boston Globe — until now
MY JOURNEY BEGAN, as so many women’s did, with the pussyhat.
The protest fashion of 2017 evoked a word I didn’t like to hear, let alone say. Yet having been unforgettably uttered by the man who would be president, the word was being cheekily co-opted by women planning a post-inaugural march to rebuke him. I was writing a story that was all about pussyhats yet felt bound by journalistic conventions to tiptoe around the p-word itself.
Was that timid? My editor wondered. Women everywhere were saying “pussyhats,” knitting them, wearing them. Who were we not to type it?
We tested it out in a style that already seems quaint — not in the headline, in quotation marks — and after brief deliberations, a top editor who normally bars the gates against such words welcomed it into print.
“PUSSY SURVIVES!” she wrote in an email.
I was heady with my own power. Surely this was the wildest, boldest, raciest thing I would ever get into print.
I had no idea.
Around the time Donald Trump took office and women all over the world took to the streets to protest, I began a new beat covering gender issues. I expected ferocious debates over abortion and an overdue discussion of the misogyny that the 2016 election had exposed.
I did not expect quite so many dirty words.
Since that first foray, I have logged three more “pussy hats,” three “vaginas,” one “penis,” three “breasts,” two references to castration, one to menstruation, one to masturbation, and two admonishments to “grow a pair of ovaries.” Many appeared in the same story, in which I also packed a trio of “damns” into a single sentence.
It’s not just the taboo words. An evolution on gender issues is testing old-school newspaper norms in other ways. New to my keyboard, and still new-ish to the pages of the Globe, were words like cisgender (meaning not transgender) and bi-gender (which really needs a hyphen in print. Trust me on this.). I slipped edgy alternative pronouns “hir” and “zir” into a story about how the pronoun “they” is increasingly being used to refer to someone who doesn’t identify as a “he” or a “she.”
On this beat, stories touch on the most intimate aspects of people’s lives. With stunning regularity, I found myself asking deeply personal questions that once would have made me squirm. For the first time in my career, I had occasion to call someone back to verify, “just to be clear, were you born male?” In the middle of the newsroom, I’ve done full-volume phone interviews with women about their preferred birth control methods and number of sexual partners.
As someone who used to write about politics and government, I was accustomed to a certain level of restraint in news stories. I was also accustomed to being censored appropriately. Even in the story where I made my pussyhat debut, my editors struck out the words “screw you,” which had appeared in a quote describing the message sent by said hats.
The Globe’s style generally prohibits the use of obscenities, profanities, or vulgarities, unless they’re part of a quote that is central to the story — or, unless they’re newsworthy because they’re said by a public official.
And you know, of course, how that’s been going. Over the past 18 months since we heard the p-word burst out of Trump’s mouth, our slide into the colloquial and the crude can seem less like a slippery slope than a cliff-dive into a very deep shithole. (Or was it “shithouse”? Either way, you get the point.)
Surprisingly, lexicographers like Kory Stamper have not been dismayed by coarse presidential language. They celebrate it, knowing that if a president reportedly uses “shithole” to describe certain countries, “shithole” would suddenly be dropped into news stories all across America.
“We have to follow the language where it’s going,” Stamper, the author of “Word by Word, the Secret Life of Dictionaries,” said in an interview. “If we are recording the language, then we really need to be able to do it as accurately as possible, and we can only do that when people accurately report language and don’t euphemize it.”
(“And while you may not want to be drowned in a wave of ‘shitholes,’ ” Stamper wrote on her blog, “for lexicographers, that’s the sort of thing we call a party.”)
Only four years ago, Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer and author of a book called “The F-Word,” wrote a column for the New York Times lamenting newspapers’ fustiness and tendency to awkwardly write around bad words, making stories seem to read “as if they were time capsules written decades ago.”
Suffice it to say, he would not write that today.
“It’s clearly very different,” Sheidlower said in an interview. “Almost everyone is now being much more open about what they are willing to publish.”
And Sheidlower, the past president of the American Dialect Society, considers that a good thing.
He sees a parallel between the use of baser language and the #MeToo movement, which has forced into view graphic depictions of sexual misconduct by powerful men. Neither is letting us look away from the ugly stuff. We are speaking the unspeakable.
“You have something that clearly badly needed to be discussed that was not discussed and is now being discussed,” he said. “And we are all better for it because we know what’s actually going on,” he said.
This new, warts-and-all openness is echoed in the campaigns of some of the many women who are running for office this year. They’re telling their own #MeToo stories and calling out male politicians for covering up others’. They’re touting their own accomplishments as tough leaders and shattering the limits of what women in politics can say.
Writing a story about those candidates, I, too, found myself wanting to break new ground.
“Where are we with ‘badass’?” I wrote in an e-mail to my editor.
She pressed me on the context. Had someone used the word in a vital quote?
Nope. I’d been hoping to use it as an adjective, describing the tough, defiant women entering public life.
I did not persuade my editor to let me put “badass” in the paper.