The passing of yet another weekend…

NY Times’ William Grimes reviews a book on Julia Child, or rather, Julia’s memoirs that her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, wrote with her and completed.

According to an article by Jesse Sheidlower in Slate, apparently it was very bad for NY Times to have the word “scumbag” in the crossword, in response to the clue “scoundrel,” as it turns out that “scumbag” has vulgar implications (i.e., its early English origins as the word for condom). Times puzzle editor, Will Shortz, himself said he was surprised. The article notes:

So, how did “scumbag” make it into the puzzle? Simple: No one realized it could be offensive. Evidence suggests that many people, especially younger speakers, are unaware of the sexual meaning (the Times’ 1998 allusion to Burton’s remark was particularly confusing to such people). All major general American dictionaries—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary—include the word only in its “despicable person” sense, without any “vulgar” label or acknowledgment of its origins. The “condom” sense can be found only in the largest dictionaries, such as the Random House Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary, not out of ignorance or prudery, but because the sense isn’t very common. And it’s not even clear why “condom” is such an offensive concept.

If you didn’t know the word’s dubious history, you might be hard-pressed to discover it. And you wouldn’t be alone in your ignorance. In a New York Times forum, puzzle editor Will Shortz wrote, “The thought never crossed my mind this word could be controversial.” Lynn Lempel, the author of the puzzle, wrote in a crossword blog, “I’m dumbfounded—and also just plain dumb I guess. I was totally ignorant of its vulgar side.” Shortz said he would not include the word again.

The Times, of course, has every right to ban the word. As the Times‘ own style manual advises, “A larger concern is for the newspaper’s character. The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes.” But the incident raises interesting questions. How offensive can a word be if people don’t realize it’s offensive? How many people have to object? Is gyp meaning “to swindle” OK to use if you don’t know it’s derived from Gypsy? And what about the opposite scenario, in which people are offended by something that’s not actually offensive? Niggardly is unrelated to the racial epithet it sounds like, and squaw is not actually derived from an Algonquian word for the female genitalia; does that mean we can dismiss objections to the use of these words, exemplified by the recent campaigns by activists to strip squaw from U.S. place names?

There’s a tendency among cautious folk to regard anything that might be offensive as offensive. But context should help us make these decisions. A nipple may be vulgar if displayed by a stripper, but it’s surely not if it’s being used to feed a baby. And in this case, the sense is unquestionably not vulgar. How do we know? The Times gives us the definition! If, once you come up with the seven letters, you’re still bothered, well, you’re the one with the dirty mind.

Rather good points were made in the article. (links within the blocked passage are Slate’s own links).

Sunday’s World News Tonight had Dan Harris as the anchor. He tries very well as the straight man anchorman, but he has this undercurrent of sarcasm I find amusing.

I really enjoy watching these reruns of the second season of “Alias.” This late Sunday night, the local channel showed the episode of the Bristow Family Vacation – that is, the episode where Secret Agent Sydney and her erstwhile CIA dad Jack, and her mom, the enemy agent Irina, are stranded in India and had to jointly shoot their way out of the situation – when, not long before, Jack warned Irina that he’ll kill her if she does anything, and Syd had to snap at her quarreling parents to quit quarreling. Quite an episode.

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