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22 September 2004 @ 11:57
C*ns*rsh*p and recoverability  

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman, reflecting on the appearance of the word "N***A" [sic] in Aaron McGruder's comic strip The Boondocks, and on the consequent disappearance of this week's Boondocks strips from the Washington Post, writes:

It hasn't occurred to me before -- though it's obvious in retrospect -- that there's a sort of information-theoretic issue about how much of a hint about the identity of an offensive word is OK.

Same here. Now, it seems to me that if an offensive word is to be partially bleeped, one sensible way of doing it is to leave enough material so that anybody who already knows the word can figure out what it was, but nobody who doesn't already know it will learn it. That seems to be the approach McGruder has taken in writing "N***A" (of which the plural form is "N****S"); you and I know exactly which word he has in mind, but all those innocents out there who have never heard this racial slur before have no way of reconstructing the missing "IGG". The ability to recognize the word is, I think, crucial to the point of the strip below, which depends on the idea that there is a difference in denotation (and not just connotation) between the terms n****s and black people:

So the poor b******s who have never encountered the word n***a in its full form are s**t out of luck when it comes to understanding the strip, but then what the f**k are they doing reading The Boondocks anyway?

Of the papers I read with any regularity, the Toronto Star bleeps offensive words, on the grounds that it is a Family Newspaper (and so we wouldn't want the kids to learn That Kind of Language from it), while the Globe & Mail, being a Newspaper For Grown-Ups, does not. The Star, I think, sometimes gives the first letter of the word, and sometimes a non-taboo paraphrase; I don't believe they have a consistent bleeping algorithm.

Another popular approach is to blot out only the vowels. As anybody familiar with Semitic or telephonic writing systems can tell you, t's nt hrd t rcnstrct txt wrttn lk tht. Nor would it be terribly difficult for a determined and reasonably intelligent child to build their vocabulary with the help of such input: you just go around saying "Fack! Fick! Feck! Fock!" and so on until you find the one that makes your parent or guardian cringe. Much of the time, I think this kind of bleeping is done purely pro forma, as a gesture of respect to the reader; the writer refrains from printing the whole word, but there is no intention of hiding it from anyone, even the kids.

Something much like that must have been in the mind of the anonymous note-writer who discreetly informs the title character of Nabokov's novel Pnin that he "has hal-----s real bad." Poor Pnin, who must not have counted the dashes, infers that the writer meant "hallucinations." Since the purpose of the message was presumably to get Pnin to do something about his own foul mouth, and Pnin was the only likely reader of it, the writer cannot have meant to conceal the identity of the word from anyone. The ellipsis must have been intended as a way of softening the news, a sort of shorthand for "I hate to say this, but...."

Then there's total bleeping. Sometimes the reader can still reconstruct the missing word through clues in the syntactic or semantic context; on the other hand, I think that sometimes there's just no underlying representation there at all. Some comic-strip (and video-game) characters just really do say @#%$&@!! when they get angry, and that's all there is to it. Of course, this kind of phenomenon has already been discussed at considerable length by Fiengo and Lasnik (1972).1

1. Fiengo, Robert, and Howard Lasnik. 1972. On nonrecoverable deletion in syntax. Linguistic Inquiry 3: 528.

(Anonym) on 22. September, 2004 23:36 (UTC)
When you write, "I don't believe they have a consistent bleeping algorithm", do you mean:

(a) I don't believe they have a consistent algorithm for bleeping
(b) I don't believe they have a consistent [bleep]ing algorithm!


-- The Tensor (http://tenser.typepad.com/tenser_said_the_tensor/)
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 23. September, 2004 06:34 (UTC)


(Anonym) on 27. September, 2004 20:10 (UTC)
Neal Whitman
Reminds me of my grandmother, who would exclaim "Sht!" when she was angry or frustrated. My mom and dad thought it was the funniest thing that my grandmother apparently thought she wasn't using offensive language, when everybody who heard her knew what word she meant.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 28. September, 2004 08:16 (UTC)
Re: Neal Whitman

Neat. At least she couldn't say it very loudly—it's awfully hard to yell a word that consists entirely of voiceless consonants....