As you probably know, I’m a devoted reader of The New York Times. It’s the best news-gathering operation in the world, and it has the best writers of any newspaper.
In keeping with its lofty status (critics might say preening), its editors are determined to take the high road in tone and taste. That’s why it is one of the few papers to use courtesy titles — Mr., Ms., Dr., etc. , not just on first reference but every time.
Sometimes, however, in its effort to avoid banality, The Times stumbles into very awkward situations — situations that most other papers manage to navigate relatively easily and logically.
A prime example was in a June 19 story about e-mails that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan had sent during her years in the Clinton administration. Times’ reporters sifted through thousands of Kagan e-mail messages in an effort to shed more light on her political and personal views, as well as on her personality.
At the end of the story, reporters Adam Liptak and Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote this:
“Her writing could be earthy, with at least three messages using variations on the two most common swear words.”
Of course, The Times — being The Times — wasn’t going to print those words, so the reader was left to figure them out. My first guess was “hell” and “damn,” but I guess the reporters meant the two most common other swear words.
The report continued:
“In one (e-mail message), she responded to a message with a single word, weaving one of them into ‘unbelievable.’ ”
In case you’re puzzled, let me translate: un-fucking-believable. It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? But, oh, how difficult it is for The Times to point the way between the lines.
Some papers would have used ellipses to get the idea across. Others would have handled the word like this: “un——believable,” or “un*******believable,” being sure that the number of dashes or asterisks equaled the number of missing letters.
The story concluded with an even more tortured manifestation of the other most common swear word:
“In another (e-mail), she said her staff should not take on empty tasks. ‘You should go,’ she said, ‘but don’t volunteer us for the’ scutwork — though she substituted an epithet for the first part of that last word.”
Did you notice how the reporters awkwardly truncated the quote just before using “scutwork” for the word they were trying to convey? I felt like I was trying to solve a word jumble.
Scut work? Well, it is in the dictionary — two words, really not one — but I’d never heard of the term. In an event, if you see “scut” in The New York Times, chances are the reporter is telling you it’s a bunch of shit.