Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity

Though the average lexicographer is as odd as a horse in trousers, we are, at least, a staid and quiet horse in trousers most of the time. There’s very little that will rile us up, and that’s a feature, not a bug.

But there is one event that makes most lexicographers startle and gasp in delight, one event that will get us to look up from our desks and start shivering and chittering like lab rats on cocaine:

God bless the motherfucking Washington Post

When a well-respected newspaper prints the word “shithole.”

For those who have been blissfully, contentedly residing under a rock (and may I join you?), President Donald Trump held a bipartisan meeting with senators on American immigration policy today, and when protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and some African countries were discussed, he was reported as having responded, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

As soon as word reached us in the bowels of the syntax mines, all activity ceased. It’s not notable because Donald Trump said it, it’s notable because it made it into newspapers–several of them, even!–unexpurgated. We all fizzed with excitement: time to take some motherfucking citations!

The American press has traditionally been loath to print unseemly language like cusswords in full, and this has been a problem for lexicographers on a number of levels. As we all know, dictionary entries need to be based on a word’s accumulated and sustained use in print. We don’t just use that body of accumulated use to come up with a word’s definition, which tends to be one of the easier things to describe, but also its status and its register. Status and register are fancy word-nerd ways of describing where exactly in the language a word sits, and how a word is deployed. Is a word academic jargon? Is it the sort of thing you only see in a Pope or Blake poem? What about Doctor Who fanfic? Is this word a slur? Or is this word boring and everywhere, the Wonder Bread of words, remarkable only because it is wholly unremarkable? If a word is used in a particular context, or with a particular sort of connotation, a lexicographer should tell you that by using those italicized labels that come before the entry: informal, formal, technical, academic, literary, vulgar, disparaging, obscene.

To get a good sense of whether a particular use merits a label, and what kind of label, I need as much evidence before me as I can get, and I need it from as many different types of sources as I can find. My work is hampered if print sources refuse to print indelicate language. Censoring out profanity–especially in news–presents a false reality, a place where presidents and lawmakers are always prudent and prim, and their language always, always decorous. I know as surely as I know that horses do not wear pants that presidents and lawmakers swear on the regular. I hope that they are as creative in their swearing as the writers of “Veep” would have me believe. But my hopes and dreams are not hard evidence. So when the word “shithole” shows up above the fold in the news section of a newspaper, that tells me, as a lexicographer, that this word is not just the province of BuzzFeed or Twitter or pulp fiction, but might actually be (shitty, shitty) Wonder Bread.

Of course, my lexical needs are not anywhere on a newspaper editor’s radar as they stare down a presidential “shithole.” They are thinking of all the angry letters, the cancelled subscriptions, the <shudder> phone calls. So some print sources have tried a middle road, one that communicates the spirit of the quote without getting into the actual letters of it:

shithole NPR

“Trump Uses Vulgar Language To Refer To African Countries, Sources Say.”, Jan 11, 2018

This little squadron of asterisks gets across to readers that the word in question is too offensive for this classy joint, while also giving enough context clues for the average reader to figure out that the word which so offends is totally “shithole.” NPR wasn’t alone in whipping out the asterisks; Ben Zimmer reported on Twitter that MSNBC initially went with asterisks, then changed to “shithole,” while Fox News was asterisks all the way down.

Any time lexicographers see censoring like this, we sigh and skip right on by, dumping the quotation out of the citations database. The average reader may assume this word is “shithole,” but your lexicographer is not an average reader. What if this word is actually “sluthole“? “Slophole“? “Suckhole“? English is flexible, and her speakers are remarkably creative when it comes to profanity (cf. “Veep,” above). Or what if the reader or listener isn’t actually familiar with any of those words, including “shithole”? Linguist Todd Snider gets me: “I wonder how many Fox News viewers are thinking about Haiti having lots of sinkholes?” And asterisking can go way too far, even for some of the sweariest among us. When news of the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke, I was at the gym, pretending to run on the treadmill while I stared at a TV on mute. The chyron read “Trump on tape: ‘Grab Them By The *****’.” You know how many five-letter objectionable words there are that fit in that phrase? A whole fucking lot–enough that by the time I ran out of options, I had run an additional (very slow) mile.

The truth is that there have been fairly uneven policies in print sources about what to print and when, but as we head deeper into the Trump years, we’re seeing more consistency. More newspapers are opting to quote him without euphemizing him: the Washington Post’s Executive Editor Marty Baron told the Washingtonian, “When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy. We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.” “Shithole” was in nearly every story I saw, and it was in more headlines and chyrons than it wasn’t. It was common enough that towards the middle of the news cycle, it was already being riffed on: Phil Mudd on CNN called himself “a proud shitholer,” and then proceeded to break the CNN record for indelicate words per minute, go Phil.

And in our office, this is cause for celebration. I’m fond of saying that lexicographers chart the language, good, bad, and ugly–but we can only chart what we see. And while you may not want to be drowned in a wave of “shitholes,” for lexicographers, that’s the sort of thing we call a party.




Filed under general, lexicography

29 responses to “Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity

  1. Pingback: Down the “Shithole”: Why Lexicographers Need Your Profanity – Strong Language

  2. David

    Thank you for this! The first thing I did, upon learning of Trump’s statement, was to open my copy of Word by Word to see what it had to say about “shithole.” (OK, it wasn’t literally the first thing. My immediate action was to down a stiff drink and curse the state of the world that would have Trump as president.) There was nothing! So, again, thank you for filling in a blank with this welcome email!

  3. Pingback: You Said It | Bark Bark Woof Woof

  4. Loath though I be to p**p on your party, I must admit that my actively used vocabulary is more likely to include TARDIS than s***hole. Although as a white middle-aged-or-rather-more Brit living as an expat in a country with a different native language, perhaps I do not quite fit the typical demographic for your lexicographical needs. So party on!

  5. Pingback: Here's why most newspapers and TV stations aren't censoring Trump's vulgar language – Washington Post | LEXYRED

  6. Wow, Kory! Midway through a cold cold winter this bear got – woke!

  7. Informative, interesting and, as usual, delightfully jaunty.

  8. You made me laugh out loud! “time to take some motherfucking citations!”

  9. Pingback: Here’s why most newspapers and TV stations aren’t censoring Trump’s vulgar language

  10. A new post from you is the sort of thing I call a party. But all I really want to say is that “on the regular” is a charming phrase and (I think) new to me. Is that something they said in whatever dialecthole you grew up in?

  11. Johanna Ruth

    Love it, Kory! Thank you!

  12. Excellent commentary! I just recently subscribed to your blog after reading Word by Word (aka, the best book I read in the past 2 years), and now this librarian has to immediately read your last post on libraries. Thanks! PS–the copyright statement on this site only goes to 2016.

  13. Y

    Is a shithole a privy, or an anus?

  14. Linda Haney

    Love, love this lexicographer’s explanations!

  15. DavidMalin

    I truly l**e your work!

  16. Through social media, I had been aware if the usage of the word; but this spot under my rock was too warm and cozy to try and chase down the actual story. Thank you for keeping me updated!

  17. Mindell Siegel

    Beautifully written, as always. I did a double take the other morning when I looked up from breakfast and saw the word “shithole” on CNN – my immediate thought was “Huh. Wonder what Kory will say about that.”

  18. Pingback: Special topics: shithole linguistics. | Everyday linguistic anthropology

  19. Richard Bell

    I spell his name “T***p.”

  20. Of course, even sh*thole can be ambiguous, because as every professional Scrabble player knows, SHOTHOLE is a perfectly legitimate word (“a hole drilled in rock to hold explosives”)

  21. …I like imagining the lexicographers’ party. There’s Coltrane coming from the speakers of a record player, and nattily dressed women and men wear party hats made out of print newspapers and magazines. Lexicographers sip martinis while scrolling through media on their laptops and saying pithy things like, “two more motherfuckers in the LA Times today, Robert.”

  22. I really love your writing, Kory Stamper!

  23. jack crowley

    what the fook is this???

  24. Pingback: Some Links (Creeping Caracal Edition) | My Scattered Thoughts

  25. Carol Costa

    I just read your book Word By Word word for word. LOVED IT!

    And it’s so fun to read the book and think about Merriam Webster, cuz I live in Springfield.

    Btw, are there ANY English words derived from Portuguese (other than the name of a specific food)? I am of Portuguese heritage and often feel ignored in English. Lol

    Carol Costa, Springfield, MA

  26. Ian

    Read and enjoyed your book ‘Word by Word’.
    May I suggest an alternative Title? “Nice Bitch!”
    Ian Sutherland

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