The dirty word in 43 Down.

Language and how we use it.
April 6 2006 12:25 PM

The Dirty Word in 43 Down

A New York Times crossword gaffe.

If you finished Monday's crossword puzzle in the New York Times, your answer for 43 Down, clued as "Scoundrel," was SCUMBAG. Most puzzlers, penciling in these letters, felt nothing more than mild satisfaction. But a small number knew enough to be outraged.

Allan Siegal, the assistant managing editor who is the Times' arbiter of usage and style, told me "we got dozens of angry messages from readers, as well as complaints from colleagues on the staff."* Bloggers expressed their surprise and dismay. Why were people so upset?

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The original meaning of scumbag is "condom." The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term to 1967, with 1971 as the first example of the "despicable person" sense, but current research has pushed the dates back to 1935 (based on the still earlier scum, "semen," and bag, "a condom") and 1950 respectively.

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.

The most recent "scumbag" is particularly startling to some because it appeared in the crossword. Even in the staid linguistic world of the Times, the puzzle has remained an oasis of particular calm. Former crossword editor Eugene Maleska once noted that Times puzzles even avoid using the word "rape" in reference to the Brassica napus plant because of its resemblance to the (etymologically unrelated) word for sexual assault.

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.

If you didn't know the word's dubious history, you might be hard-pressed to discover it. And you wouldn't be alone in your ignorance. In a New York Times forum, puzzle editor Will Shortz wrote, "The thought never crossed my mind this word could be controversial." Lynn Lempel, the author of the puzzle, wrote in a crossword blog, "I'm dumbfounded—and also just plain dumb I guess. I was totally ignorant of its vulgar side." Shortz said he would not include the word again.

The Times, of course, has every right to ban the word. As the Times' own style manual advises, "A larger concern is for the newspaper's character. The Times differentiates itself by taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes." But the incident raises interesting questions. How offensive can a word be if people don't realize it's offensive? How many people have to object? Is gyp meaning "to swindle" OK to use if you don't know it's derived from Gypsy? And what about the opposite scenario, in which people are offended by something that's not actually offensive? Niggardly is unrelated to the racial epithet it sounds like, and squaw is not actually derived from an Algonquian word for the female genitalia; does that mean we can dismiss objections to the use of these words, exemplified by the recent campaigns by activists to strip squaw from U.S. place names?

There's a tendency among cautious folk to regard anything that might be offensive as offensive. But context should help us make these decisions. A nipple may be vulgar if displayed by a stripper, but it's surely not if it's being used to feed a baby. And in this case, the sense is unquestionably not vulgar. How do we know? The Times gives us the definition! If, once you come up with the seven letters, you're still bothered, well, you're the one with the dirty mind.

Correction, April 6, 2006: The original version of this article misspelled Allan Siegal's name. Return to the corrected sentence.

Jesse Sheidlower, formerly the editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is the president of the American Dialect Society. He is the author of The F-Word.

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