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:
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:
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.