Sunday, April 16, 2006

SCUMBAG Is a Dirty Word, but that Won't Stop Wil Shortz

Scumbag apparently means not only scoundrel but also condom, and that's usually enough to keep it out of the New York Times, except when a crossword-puzzle editor forgets the dirty definition. So on Monday, April 3, the answer to 43 Down, "Scoundrel," was an unprintable vulgar term for a prophylactic that apparently only members of the Greatest Generation know about:
The Times maintains strict lexical standards, and close watchers of the paper already know that "scumbag" has long been considered off-limits. In 1998, Indiana Rep. Dan Burton publicly said of President Clinton, "This guy's a scumbag. That's why I'm after him." But the paper, in an article specifically about the insult and Burton's refusal to apologize, still opted not to quote the congressman directly, referring instead to his "use of a vulgarity for a condom to describe the President." Exceptions have been very few: In 2005, the term did appear in an article about a juror held in contempt after he looked at a defendant and said, "I think he is a scumbag." But such instances are generally regarded as accidents.

. . . .

So, how did "scumbag" make it into the puzzle? Simple: No one realized it could be offensive. Evidence suggests that many people, especially younger speakers, are unaware of the sexual meaning (the Times' 1998 allusion to Burton's remark was particularly confusing to such people). All major general American dictionaries—Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, the Random House Webster's College Dictionary—include the word only in its "despicable person" sense, without any "vulgar" label or acknowledgment of its origins. The "condom" sense can be found only in the largest dictionaries, such as the Random House Unabridged and the Oxford English Dictionary, not out of ignorance or prudery, but because the sense isn't very common. And it's not even clear why "condom" is such an offensive concept.
Link. Begging the question, who does crossword puzzles in print anymore? Who even does crossword puzzles? Personally? I think dirty words in crossword puzzles make them more fun, especially dirty words so obscure they're practically Shakespearean. Wil Shortz, the Times crossword editor, should strive to the ideal of Mel Brooks movies, which, in the words of the director himself, "rise below vulgarity."

Indexed by tags newspapers, crossword, vulgar, scumbag, New York Times, Wil Shortz, condom, sudoku.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get it right.

3:02 PM  
Blogger The Good Reverend said...

beg v. 3.b : to pass over or ignore by assuming to be established or settled _beg the question_

The initial article passed over the question whether anyone does crossword puzzles in print anymore, assuming it to be settled. I stand by the usage.

3:54 PM  

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