Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
42

The Dirty Talk Of The Town: Profanity At "The New Yorker"

Famous story, here recounted by The Daily News:

Harold Brodkey used to tell the tale of how legendary New Yorker magazine editor William Shawn handled his use of a four-letter word: It's up to you, Shawn said, but would you rather be remembered for your story or the first use of that word in this magazine? Brodkey spiked the offending expletive.

Shawn was indeed vigilant against vulgarity. It's said that, being afraid of elevators, he used to carry a hatchet in his briefcase in case he was ever trapped inside one. But I like to think the weapon served also as a warning to staffers who did not get the message: This is a clean magazine!

As it happens, Shawn was not the last New Yorker editor averse to the baser corners of the language. A dirty little secret of The New Yorker archives: his successors, Gottlieb, Brown and Remnick, are only slightly less so. Forthwith, a compendium of New Yorker firsts in vulgarity.

anal
First used: 1994, David Remnick, “The Exile Returns”
[quoting Solzhenitsyn:] If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

asshole
First used: 1994, Rebecca Johnson, “Making the Fur Fight Fly”
On the main floor, before leaving the store, he surreptitiously approached a woman in a full-length fur and pressed an “I’m an asshole. I wear fur” sticker on the back of her coat.

blowjob
First used: 2003, Tad Friend, “Remake Man”
[quoting Roy Lee:] I urge you to ask him if he ever paid for a sexual act such as the aforementioned blow-jobs, hand-jobs or sexual intercourse.

cunt
First used: 1997, Kurt Andersen, “The Culture Industry”
Jane Campion, the head of the Venice Jury, told me she liked Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry,” although for the overwhelmingly Italian audience phrases such as “world-class meshuggana cunt” probably lost something in translation.

douchebag
First used: 2004, Roger Angell, "Long Voyage Home"
Will this be Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson all over again, or like the time somebody—was it Graig Nettles?—called Carlton Fisk a douchebag?

fart
First used: 1995, Michael Sragow, “Dumb and Dumber”
But the screenplay for this deliberately over-the-top (under-the-bottom?) farce—about Carrey’s unwitting retrieval of some ransom money and his effort to return it to his dream gal (Lauren Holly) in Aspen—doesn’t pass muster as a string of moronic skits (studded with urine and fart jokes) or as a lampoon of buddy movies.

felching
First used: 2010, John Lahr, “The Human Circus”
“It went something like this: ‘Gay man, thirty-three, non-smoker, into bondage, rape simulation, leather, rubber, chains, rimming, felching. Looking for romance,’ ” he says, adding, “That’s my life.”

fuck
First used: 1991, Allegra Goodman, "Onionskin"
I was the one who stood up in class and said Fuck Augustine.

[Edited to add: Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, writes in that the first use he knows of was 1985, Calvin Trillin, "American Chronicles: I've Got Problems"
"Goddamn fuckin' Jews!" Kirk shouted. "They destroyed everything I ever worked for!"]

hard-on
First used: 2002, David Denby, “Breaking Through”
As a camera subject, Eminem is resistant material—he has the general aspect of a walking hard-on—but he's fascinating, too, and his way of withholding himself is both a natural reflex and a method of teasing and dominating everyone else.

jizz
First used: 2006, Ian Parker, “He Knew He Was Right”
He added, “People say, ‘What’s it like to be a minority of one, or a kick-bag for the Internet?’ It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.”

motherfucker
First used: 1994, Ian Frazier, “On the Floor”
It sounded like a chorus of high-pitched voices shouting the word “motherfucker” through a blender.

penis
First used: 1981, Georgia A. Brown, "Happiness"
Quizzed repeatedly by English-speaking journalists about the basis of her long-lasting marriage, Mme. de Gualle replied over and over, in a marked accent, with one word, "Happiness," which the correspondents heard as "Ah, penis"—or, to better punctuate the historian's imitation, "Ah! Pe-nis!"

pussy
First used as "vagina" synonym: 1993, Adam Platt, “Fighting Words”
The word Nyhan used was “pussy-whipped.”

shit
First used: 1976, Gabriel García Márquez, "The Autumn of the Patriarch"
And then he began to roar shut up, God damn it, shut up or you’ll pay for it, but Patricio Aragonés kept on saying without the slightest intention of a joke why should I shut up when all you can do is kill me and you’re already killing me, it would be better now to take advantage and look truth in the face, General, so you can know that no one has ever told you what he really thinks but that everyone tells you what he knows you want to hear while he bows to your face and thumbs his nose at you from behind, you might even thank fate that I’m the man who most pities you in this world because I’m the only one who looks like you, the only one honorable enough to sing out to you what everyone says, that you’re president of nobody and that you’re not on the throne because of your big guns but because the English sat you there and the Gringos kept you there with the pair of guns on their battleship, because I saw you scurrying like a cockroach this way and that, back and forth, when the Gringos shouted to you we’re leaving you here with your nigger whorehouse, so let’s see if you can put it all together without us, and if you never got up from your chair since that time or have never gone out it’s probably not because you don’t want to but because you can’t, recognize it, because you know that the moment they see you on the street dressed as a mortal they’re going to fall on you like a pack of dogs to collect from you, in one case for the killings at Santa Maria del Altar, in another for the prisoners thrown into the moat of the harbor fort to be eaten by crocodiles, in another for the people you skin alive and whose hides you send to their families as a lesson, he said, dipping into the bottomless well of his long-postponed rancor and drawing out the string of atrocities of his regime of infamy, until he could no longer tell him any more because a fiery rake tore his guts apart, his heart softened again, and he ended with no instance of offense but almost one of supplication, I’m serious, General, take advantage of the fact that I’m dying now and die with me, no one has more right than I to tell you this, because I never had any intention of looking like anyone, much less a national hero, but only a sad little glassblower making bottles like my father, take a chance, General, it doesn’t hurt as much as it seems, and he said it with an air of such serene truth that the rage to answer did not overcome him but, rather, he tried to hold Patricio Aragonés up in his chair when he saw that he was starting to twist about and hold his belly in his hands and was sobbing with tears of pain and shame, I’m so sorry, General, but I’m shitting in my pants and he thought he meant it in a figurative sense, that he was dying of fear, but Patricio Aragonés answered him no, I mean real shit shitting, General, and he managed to beseech him, hold on, Patricio Aragonés, hold on, we generals of the fatherland have to die like men even if we pay for it with our lives, but he said it too late, because Patricio Aragonés fell face down and on top of him, kicking with fear and soaked in filth and tears.

skank
First used as slang: 2006, Junot Diaz, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”
Nothing special, skanks really, but girls nonetheless.

slut
First used: 1974, Edna O'Brien, "The House of My Dreams"
The Spanish maid had been a nice girl, but a slut.

testicle
First used: 1976, Gabriel García Márquez, "The Autumn of the Patriarch"
Rising up from where they had always dozed on the cornices of the charity hospital they came, they came from farther inland, they came in successive waves, out of the horizon of the sea of dust where the sea had been, for a whole day they flew in slow circles over the house of power until a king with bridal-fan feathers and a crimson ruff gave a silent order and that breaking of glass began, that breeze of a great man dead, that in and out of vultures through the windows imaginable only in a house which lacked authority, so we dared go in too and in the deserted sanctuary we found the rubble of grandeur, the body that had been pecked at, the smooth maiden hands with the ring of power on the bone of the third finger, and his whole body was sprouting tiny lichens and parasitic animals from the depths of the sea, especially in the armpits and the groin, and he had the canvas truss on his herniated testicle, which was the only thing that had escaped the vultures in spite of its being the size of an ox kidney, but even then we did not dare believe in his death, because it was the second time he had been found in that office, alone and dressed and dead seemingly of natural causes during his sleep, as had been announced a lung time ago in the prophetic waters of soothsayers’ basins.

titties
First used: 1976, Saul Bellow, “The Silver Dish"
Morris said that if titties were not fondled and kissed they got cancer in protest.

vagina
First used: 1995, James Wolcott, “An Absolutely Fabulous Finale"
On the sofa, Edina (Jennifer Saunders, the show’s creator) is explaining to her pal Patsy (Joanna Lumley) how in her feminist heyday she spent a week celebrating her vagina—making artistic molds out of it, taking it out for three-course meals&mdashall in vain.



Elon Green writes supply-sider agitprop for ThinkProgress and Alternet. He just got married.

UPDATE: The New Yorker itself offers a few corrections and emendations.

42 Comments / Post A Comment

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Of course they hyphenate 'blowjob.' SHAMEFUL.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@Miles Klee
You still write blojob with a W? Where you been?

jrb (#3,020)

Ah, so that's where 1993's "The Beverly Hillbillies" remake got its "HA-ppiness" joke from.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@jrb Also, this is how Peggy Hill learned to say "penis".

jfruh (#713)

What about "scumbag"? I only recently found out that this word is in origin a reference to a used condom and that for many years respectable publications wouldn't print it.

cherrispryte (#444)

@jfruh I didn't know that either until my mother yelled at me for using the term at some point late in high school. She said it meant "a used prophylactic" and I didn't know what that meant either, which was surprising. She then scowled at me for forcing her to say the word condom.

Jesus! That Solzhenitsyn quote.

SeanP (#4,058)

@NotAndersonCooper I know! I almost couldn't read it.

scroll_lock (#4,122)

@NotAndersonCooper -It reminds us, the holidays will be here before we know it.

hockeymom (#143)

Never in a million years would I have pegged Angell as the first to use the word "douchebag."

kilgub (#7,768)

Nice, but I'm curious about what this list would look like if the Fiction section were omitted.

Matt (#26)

I guess we're all whispering because we're using filthy language.

Rollo (#3,202)

As it happens, Shawn was not the last New Yorker editor averse to the baser corners of the language. A dirty little secret of The New Yorker archives: his successors, Gottlieb, Brown and Remnick, are only slightly less so.

Weird assertion!

I take pride in the fact that I was the first person to use the word "buttplug" in an Awl post.

I might just put that on my resume.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Did Shawn allow Brodkey's male characters to wear shorts in the city?

Jasmine (#8)

From a writeup I did of the NYer Fest for Mediaite (http://www.mediaite.com/online/dispatches-from-the-new-yorker-festival/2/):

Calvin Trillin brought us, uproariously, on his few early battles with long-time editor William Shawn, for whom he had enormous respect, over language. Trillin isn’t particularly into profanity, as his father had been a proponent of using proper language: “When I was a little boy, I thought ‘for crying out loud’ was the sort of oath that grownups used for particularly dire circumstances.” Shawn’s desired changes often verged on the ridiculous. John Cheever had to edit the sentence, “You’ve just lost a fuck,” to “Shut up Melissa, shut up,” before it would run in The New Yorker. When and article mentioned cats mounting each other Shawn requested a euphemism for mount, something like, “making a sexual advance toward.” “But it’s a cat. We’re talking about a cat here,” said Trillin. Needless to say, “mount” remained. The first time the magazine published a photo of bare breasts a reader wrote to Trillin to complain. Trillin responded, “They were small breasts, in keeping with the understated nature of the magazine.” While writing his U.S. Journal series, he interviewed Lester Maddox, who spoke the phrase, “ram it.” Trillin protested that Shawn was asking Trillin to stop listening when other reporters are still listening, which lead to a showdown over which Trillin was afraid he’d lose his job. “I know what you analytically inclined New Yorkers are thinking: I really did have a burning ambition to get dirty words in The New Yorker, because I was acting out against my father who I deeply resented for sleeping with my mother. In all honesty, when I’m in my own voice, as opposed to quoting somebody, I’ve never use offensive language in the magazine. I’ve always known that my father and Mr. Shawn would disapprove.”

An editor told me once not to call commenters jagweeds again

Man, their stylebook is even weird about transliterating Yiddish.

purefog (#999)

SPY magazine did a fine piece comparing the pre-Tina and post-Tina NYers called "Fuck, Yes, the New Yorker" (previsaging "America, Fuck Yeah!" by well over a decade) which I would scan and post here if I knew how.

@purefog It's available online in the Spy Archives. Here's a link:

http://books.google.com/books?id=baPI1gQ15ooC&pg=PA22

rolandcrosby (#1,480)

@purefog No need to! Here it is.

droopymcjackass (#13,342)

@purefog And Kurt Anderson is even on the list.

keisertroll (#1,117)

@purefog It also predates fuckyesthenewyorker.tumblr.com by almost twenty years.

grandpa27 (#804)

We are not talking Profanity here, we are talking Obscenity; Scatologically speaking. ORIGIN mid 16th cent.: from late Latin profanitas, from Latin profanus ‘not sacred’ (see profane ).

Mr. B (#10,093)

I just googled "felching," and now I really wish I hadn't. Thanks, New Yorker!

grandpa27 (#804)

@Mr. B I googled filching and came up with- stealing a small object – as well as the usual(?)
felching. Maybe it is a case of mistaken identity or usurpation.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@grandpa27 It's quite enough to imagine the circumatances under which some lush (perhaps wearing a "Triumph!" t-shirt), a self-satisfied grin on his face, said to himself, "I think I need to invent a new word for what I just did!"

OK so a lot of those nice words were new for me :)

For a guy who just got married Elon Green is mighty cavalier about including "penis" but not "clitoris" in his survey. For the record, "clit" only made it into the New Yorker in 2009.

droopymcjackass (#13,342)

And if you put these in chronological order, you see a boy growing up into a teenage boy.

homeandbeds101 (#13,366)

Actually this is normal these days

A small suggestion: the article would be improved if the instances of vulgarity were listed in chronological rather than alphabetical order

asc (#13,453)

So how come Ian Frazier can use "motherfucker" in 1994 (and I found 98 other citations for the word since), but the magazine's current theater listings refer to the current Broadway play as "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" ?

Rollo (#3,202)

@asc Because "The Motherf**ker with the Hat" is the actual name of the play.

SorryStateFair (#1,521)

This is driving me apeshit but is also proving William Shawn's point perfectly… last year, TNY ran a profile of a male playwright or writer (I THINK it was by John Lahr?) that discussed how the subject of the article owned a sculpture of his longtime partner's "cock and ass." Does anyone else remember this?! It was a well-written profile and I'm so ashamed that I can't remember the subject OR the model for the cock and ass.

avey (#13,519)

@SorryStateFair I'm pretty sure it was a profile of John Cage, and the partner was Merce Cunningham. First ever awl comment, so let's hope I'm right!

Post a Comment