Via Hitsville, I see that the New York Times continues to assure readers it is dowdy, out-of-touch, and scared of printing language spoken by actual 2008 adults. The latest is an article about vulgarity in NBC’s Thursday-night shows, helpfully annotated by Bill Wyman at Hitsville:
“In the case of ’30 Rock,’ the reference came in the form of an acronym — part of the title of a make-believe ‘Survivor’-like show — referring to a teenager’s crude designation of someone’s sexy mother.* In ‘The Office,’ besides the bleeping, the character’s lips were even pixilated to prevent lip reading. But it was not difficult for many viewers instantly to realize what was said**.”
* The show-within-the-show in “30 Rock” is called “MILF Island”; MILF stands for “mother I’d like to fuck.”
** In “The Office,” Jan and Michael, hosting the dinner party from hell, engage in a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”-style face-off, culminating in an argument about having children in which it’s revealed that Michael has had a vasectomy, had it reversed, and then had another one because of Jan’s indecision. “Fine, let’s have a fucking kid,” she says sarcastically. “Do you mean it? Do you want to have a kid?” Michael asks, ready to have his second vasectomy reversal.
See, the real problem with the Times’ (and, by extension, 97 percent of daily newspapers’) prudishness is not only that it drains all the humor and realism out of the topics at hand. It’s just plain confusing, people!
Readers might think 30 Rock’s show-in-a-show was called “YMAH: Your Mom’s a Ho” or “YMSMASPFROMS: Your Mom Sent Me a Spam-Porn Friend Request on MySpace.” The Times may think it’s sheltering readers from put-cotton-in-your-ears language — but it’s really just giving them license to mentally run through all the dirty words referring to a teenager’s sexy mother. Shame on you, gutter-dwelling Times readers!!!
In honor of National Grammar Day, John McIntyre has a nice post explaining why much of what we have been taught regarding grammar and usage rules ultimately amounts to a “proliferation of bogus advice on language.” It’s an interesting historical overview that explains how
without an Academy to determine an authoritative English, and without the ability of dictionary makers to “fix” the language, the task of establishing principles of grammar and usage has fallen to a mixed group authorities of varying reliability.
So all those ironclad rules about split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions that teachers harped on, and much of the stuff in the AP stylebook, is basically derived from little more than self-reinforcing cycles of personal preference. Good times.
McIntyre also links to a fun anti-Grammar Day post at Language Log. Both well worth checking out.
I know I said recently that newspapers should stop worrying so much about AP style and other copy editing minutia. But I have to add a large exception for jargon — particularly, as John McIntyre notes in a great post, redundant meteorological jargon:
Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an announcer warn of the possibility of “rain activity” later in the day. How, I wondered, does rain activity differ from rain?
McIntyre also gives a nice rundown of the many unnecessary words TV weatherpeople use for snow:
snow event, snowfall, snowstorm, snowflakes, sleet, slush, wintry mix, blizzard, precipitation, icy pellets, powder (for skiing), blanket and the apparently irresistible vulgarism white stuff.
Ah, mid-Atlantic winters. One of the great things about living in New Hampshire (lots of snow) and then Florida (no snow) is not having to watch TV newspeople go nuts over the hint of flurries and report from the supermarket on people rushing to buy bread, toilet paper and milk — just as they (both newspeople and shoppers) have done every single other time ever that there’s been snow in the region.
And yet, you never hear anyone worry that TV news is going broke. No justice, I tells ya.
(Also see Prelude and Parts I, III, and IV.)
Taking a different approach to news requires looking at the audience in a different way. A traditional newspaper might view its readers as fairly unsophisticated people who have no exposure to news or pop culture elsewhere; as innocents who will faint at bad language; as sponges who will accept whatever the paper gives them, whether or not it’s well-written, well-edited, or interesting. This view ignores major changes in the culture at large.
As Steven Johnson notes in his book Everything Bad Is Good for You, today’s pop culture is far more complex than that of even 15 years ago. Shows like Lost, The Sopranos, and The Simpsons have dozens of characters and plotlines, layers of jokes, and a lack of clichéd handholding that made older shows so literal. Video games require players to juggle dozens of objectives while figuring out how a game’s world and rules work. “All around us the world of mass entertainment grows more demanding and sophisticated, and our brains happily gravitate to that newfound complexity,” Johnson writes.
It’s not just shows and games. Consider “the cultural and technological mastery of a ten-year-old today: following dozens of professional sports teams; shifting effortlessly from phone to IM to e-mail in communicating with friends; probing and telescoping through immense virtual worlds; adopting and troubleshooting new media technologies without flinching,” Johnson writes. “… Their brains are being challenged at every turn by new forms of media and technology that cultivate sophisticated problem-solving skills.” Advertising and public relations, too, are far more sophisticated. The media menu has been greatly expanded for anyone with access to the Internet. Meanwhile, people are exposed to cursing, sex, and violence at ever younger ages.
But as the rest of the culture has become vastly more sophisticated, newspapers generally remain stuck in a bygone era — often willfully so. Instead of ignoring the changes in the audience and culture, an aspirationally non-boring newspaper would embrace them in service of a more interesting, lively news report.