Today’s Opinion: What the #@%! is next?

POSTED: 03/28/11 4:48 PM

The American newsmagazine Newsweek ventured into new territory with the cover of its issue dated March 28 to April 4. The cover depicts a huge wave under the main headline Apocalypse Now followed by Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Nuclear Meltdowns. Revolutions. Editor in Chief Tina Brown either wrote or at least approved the historical text What the #@%! is next?

We’re prepared to bet our salary for the next fifteen years plus our entire pension that not a single reader will pronounce this line as: What the pound-at sign-percent-exclamation mark is this?

Hell no. Most readers – correction – every reader will have only one word on her or his mind. It is a four letter word that starts with an f, ends with a k and has u and c in the middle. We’re all for decency, but we also have a strong dislike for hypocrisy. When they come across the most famous four-letter word in history in any context, most editors shy away from it and write a reference between brackets (expletive), leaving it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the gap. They use the equally hypocritical ff-ing like in “Open the ff-ing door or I will kill you,” or they find other ways to make clear to their readers what was said without actually using a word most people find offensive, like in “What the f*ck do you want?” That Newsweek dared to put this four-letter word in a creative way on its cover says something about the exasperation that has clouded rational thinking in the light of natural and man-made disasters and political upheaval in places where this was least expected.

The United States is, believe it or not, a rather prudish nation, where the Federal Communication Committee (FCC) functions as the moral police of the airwaves by outlawing profane language in public broadcasts. In December 2003, Doug Ose a Republican congressman from Sacramento, California, introduced a bill aimed at punishing responsible parties for profane broadcasts by banning the words – and we quote – `shit’, `piss’, `fuck’, `cunt’, `asshole’, and the phrases `cock sucker’, `mother fucker’, and `ass hole’, compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).

Ose must have winced many times when he wrote the text of the bill. More recently the debate has started about the constitutionality of FCC-rules with regard to public broadcasts. After all, it is a form of discrimination, because these rules do not apply to cable TV and radio stations. And anyone who has ever watched a standup comedian on American cable TV must have been overwhelmed by the number of expletives these characters manage to stuff in half an hour’s worth of entertainment.

“You will never go broke by underestimating the taste of the American public,” is an expression we heard many years ago in a discussion about the shameful quality of the products delivered by the film industry.

American movies depict a reality that exists on the streets, but not in the world inhabited by the FCC’s moral crusaders. So yes, in movies the four-letter word and all its derivatives are the weapons of choice of the modern script writer. But until this week, established print media, especially in the United States, felt the need to “protect” their readers against these forms of vulgarity. We have always found this rather hypocritical. Though we think that it is not always (even better: hardly ever) necessary to use the f-word (simply because there are so many decent alternatives for skilled writers to make the same point), we feel quite free to use them in specific situations, as long as they occur in a verbatim quotation.

When a defendant in the Court in First Instance is accused of threatening someone with words like “If you don’t open the door I will fucking kill you” we do not see why it would be a problem to serve our readers the complete enchilada. If we wrote the same sentence and replaced the expletive with (expletive), or with Newsweek’s #@%!-ing, what is the difference really?

We often hear that young people also read newspapers and that they should not be confronted with such language. Only people who are related to the ostrich would come up with such a misguided argument.

Just listen to the language young kids use among each other. And we’re not talking about teenagers, or even young adults, we’re talking about pre-teens and even toddlers. Whom are these people kidding? Themselves? As long as we do not see these offensive words in print, they do not exist, seems to be their preferred line of thinking. The truth is of course that these words do exist, and that an ever increasing part of the population has no problem using them in everyday conversations.

The argument that it is not done to print expletives is really no argument at all, though the feeling that drives it testifies of a commendable longing for the days when the newspaper was considered a gentleman (obviously this was before the women’s lib movement got underway), and when it never even entered a journalist’s mind to use such language in writing. So, to stay with Newsweek’s question: What the fuck is next?

At Today, we are used to call a spade a spade so yeah, on occasion readers will hit upon a quote, mostly from a defendant in court that contains an expletive. We will use it, because it aptly illustrates the world these people live in. Our readers have the right to be informed about that.

We will not come up with sentences like “The #@%!?/* Minister plans to introduce a #@%!?/* media law to ban the use of words like #@%! in  #@%!?/* print and on the #@%!?/* radio.”

Newsweek should have given its readers the full Monty, or it should have used this nerdy abbreviation that made it into the Oxford English Dictionary recently. Would not OMG! What is Next? have conveyed exactly the same message?

But what is next? Time will tell, but we have an uneasy feeling that by crossing this line, Newsweek has set a new standard for what is acceptable in print in mainstream media. As the new additions to the Oxford English dictionary prove, language is a living communication tool that evolves over time. The Oxford not only added OMG (Oh My god), but also LOL (Laughing Out Loud) and FYI (For Your Information).

These additions seem to be highly selective, because we could think of many more chat room-inspired abbreviations that are commonly known and also commonly used by millions of people every day. For instance: rotflmao (rolling on the floor laughing my ass off), c u (see you), AFK2p (away from keyboard to pee), and last but not least WTF – explanation not necessary. Though Newsweek would most likely explain it as What the #@%! Looks like the editors at Oxford are currently more prudish than Tina Brown at Newsweek. Why? The best answer we have for this one is the following chat room abbreviation: YGIAGAM (your guess is as good as mine).

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