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Media Should Reflect A Profane Society, Critic Says

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Swear words are generally a no-go in the media. NPR's Rachel Martin talks to Jesse Sheidlower, president of the American Dialect Society, about why we need more obscenities in our daily lives.


There are certain words that we're not used to reading in the newspaper - or hearing on the radio, for that matter; like (BLEEP), (BLEEP) and (BLEEP). Those are some of a few taboo words when it comes to proper news etiquette.

But Jesse Sheidlower, who is the author of a book called "The F-Word," thinks we could actually hear more obscenities in our daily lives. He joins us from our studios in New York City, to tell us why. So break this down for me, Jesse. You think we're a bit too uptight when it comes to what we will and won't print or broadcast?

JESSIE SHEIDLOWER: When the media report on stories that have to do with offensive language, that language should be part of the story. I don't think that in general, we should use this language more, but when we have articles that depend on the use of language, we need to know what the language is.

MARTIN: Can you give me an example of what a situation would be where a story would be dependent on an obscenity?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, a couple of years ago, the actor Isaiah Washington was kicked off the show "Grey's Anatomy" when he referred to one of his costars using what was referred to as a gay slur. And different newspapers and different shows that were covering this referred to this in different ways. But many, if not most, didn't actually tell you what he said. And when you have a situation where the only reason there's a news story is because someone said something, you need to have quote marks and say what that person said.

Otherwise, we don't actually know what the story is about, and we have to trust the journalist who's effectively saying, well, this was bad. We can't tell you what it was, but it was bad. Trust me.

MARTIN: And I imagine you don't think dashes or asterisks are sufficient?

SHEIDLOWER: Well, I do think that that's a big improvement from not printing it at all. But I think that that's not really the right answer, either, because despite claims to the contrary, people who are reading the news are adults. And children are taught that it's appropriate to use language this way at this time, and this way at another time. So even if there were children reading these things, no one is being protected by not saying what someone actually said.

MARTIN: Do you think what is considered acceptable language in public has changed?

SHEIDLOWER: It's changed quite a bit in recent years, in recent decades. And that's one reason why this problem comes up more and more. In the past, things like this would never happen because people wouldn't ever say these things publicly. The media needs to report on what's happening in the world. And if our world is becoming more profane, then you need - the media need to reflect that. And that's a separate argument from whether this is good or bad. I mean, all the time, people say, well, I don't like the fact that people are using these words more and more.

But nonetheless, it is part of our world. And no one says, well, I really don't like the fact that there is all this war going on. We should stop talking about it because it makes me uncomfortable. But at the same time, we say this about language. Let's write around it. Let's not say exactly what we're talking about because it makes me uncomfortable.

MARTIN: Jesse Sheidlower is the president of the American Dialect Society, and the author of "The F-Word." He joined us from our studios in New York. Jesse, thanks so much.

SHEIDLOWER: Thank you.

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