It’s mid-January, I have this Nonfictionary deadline, and all I can think about is President Trump’s latest vulgarity.
His recent word choice about certain countries jumped from my phone like an electrical charge, literally and physically jolting me backwards. For the rest of the day and beyond, my soul hurt and my spirit sagged.
But it was just a word.
Let’s be honest. I have a pretty good vocabulary of inappropriate words and I’m not all that careful about using them in adult company. My mother was so fond of “damn” that I didn’t know it was considered a curse word until I got to school. (Somehow, I’m still surprised that it’s verboten!)
I worked in several newsrooms where blue language was just the way we described events and chatted with each other. And my dog is definitely familiar with a few four-letter exclamations.
Oh please, they’re just words.
Still, there’s a line. Despite the colorful banter of the workplace, newspapers have a clear standard about what goes into print: Profanity is allowed only sparingly, even today. If the offending language is in a quote, perhaps you paraphrase it into something more printable or just work around it. Any exceptions must be important and usually require special permission from the higher-ups.
In the old days, The Wall Street Journal regularly used what was called a Barney dash, after the paper’s arrow-straight keeper of standards, Barney Calame. That was a first letter, followed by a long dash. It still reserves the Barney dash for especially egregious words.
No s—, you knew what it was. But you didn’t have to actually ingest it along with your Wheaties.
If the president of the United States said something coarse, or the VP let something obscene slip out on a hot microphone, well, that was a different situation. Then, the words might actually appear in all their ugliness.
You’ve got to have some standards.
As a writer of nonfiction for young people, I’ve run into these kinds of language issues more than I expected. After all, real people do use real words. And sometimes they have real impact on a subject.
“Hell,” for instance, was a big concept during the debate over liquor before, during, and after Prohibition. It was impossible to ignore it in my book Bootleg: Murder, Moonshine, and the Lawless Years of Prohibition, though some people think that word doesn’t belong in a children’s book. (Apparently, the Bible is exempt.)
One reviewer called me out for using “damned” in a quotation in Mr. Sam, my biography of Sam Walton, and then questioned the appropriateness of the book because of that single word. (Thanks, Mom!)
Steve Jobs, however, posed the biggest challenge. As a colorful entrepreneur, he had quite the wide-ranging adult vocabulary. Walter Isaacson’s long biography for grown-ups is peppered with four-letter saltiness. But writing for young adults required a choice.
It wasn’t too difficult to decide what to do in Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different. I realize that teens (and younger kids) know those words and that they use them, too. But I’m in Texas, and I also know there are school libraries that will shy away from a book just because of a profanity. If I wrote fiction, I might choose differently, since avoiding those words might make a teen character less authentic. But as a teller of true stories, I had access to plenty of words that effectively made clear what Jobs wanted to say when he was, for example, demolishing someone’s hard work.
There was one quote, however, where one of those dastardly bombs exploded. Some commenter somewhere wondered aloud why I didn’t use the obvious real word.
True story: the original source had used a long dash—and so did I.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: A Woman Living History introduced me to a new kind of language. There are certain words I absolutely won’t use in any context, primarily those that I consider racist or hateful, including a couple of especially crude ones aimed at women. A few people found it necessary to share those words in describing how they felt about the presidential candidate I profiled. (Thanks, Twitter!)
In tapping on my social media, I had the same response I had to President Trump’s January word choice, a bracing, slap-in-the-face reaction.
It was painful and upsetting—and I think that’s okay. We should never lose the ability to viscerally feel the impact of language, good or bad. We should never grow so complacent that words don’t move us. They should spark horror, spur tears, convey outrage, hurt, heal, or propel us to be something better.
Words are powerful. Choose carefully.