Thursday, October 27, 2011, USA Today ran a story with the headline “@$#&!! What are publishers doing?” I didn’t bother to buy the edition, and I can’t find the article online, but the subhead made it clear that it was about the recent prevalence of obscenities in mainstream book titles. Doesn’t matter. What made me do a double-take was the headline’s bowdlerization. Not the fact that it was there–I get the joke–but that it gets the swearing wrong, and I can’t figure out if that’s on purpose.
By long-standing convention, a lean-on-the-shift-key bramble like “@$#&!” is a stand-in for a curse word. In this context, the most reasonable underlying representation for the headline is, “Fuck! What are publishers doing?” But the pragmatics of this is all wrong. You say “Fuck! [FULL STOP] α” immediately after α occurs when α has just taken you by surprise. As in, “Fuck! That jackass in the Subaru almost clobbered me!” “Fuck” here is pretty much just a noise the adrenalin squeezes out of you. That isn’t the case for this headline, however, because it’s not like the writer noticed the rising prevalence of taboo language in book titles half a second before the article was penned. Here the feeling that’s being communicated is not surprise but rather incredulity mixed with dismay. It’s not “Fuck!” It’s “What the fuck?” A headline for the USA Today story that is more in sync with the way English speakers in the U.S.A. talk today would be “What the @$#&! are publishers doing?” So why isn’t that the headline?
Maybe because headline writing is partially a visual art, and the layout editor couldn’t spare the ems to print “What the” in this particular instance. Maybe. But there’s also the perennial newspaper challenge of communicating obscenity without actually employing it. Imagine instead a headline that read “F–! What are publishers doing?” That wouldn’t make it past standards because USA Today is a family paper and there’s no way to read “F–” as anything but Fuck. Here the bowdlerization makes the obscenity more powerful–the typographic oddity inviting your eyes linger on a word that you’d otherwise just breeze past. This is the Paradox of Prohibition. The funniest thing on the Jimmy Kimmel show is a recurring bit called This Week in Unnecessary Censorship in which banal utterances from public figures are bleeped and mouth-blurred in a way that causes you to mentally insert obscenities that weren’t originally there. In fact, this is the only funny thing on the Jimmy Kimmel show ever, except for Sarah Silverman’s song “I’m @$#&! Matt Damon”.
“What the @$#&! are publishers doing?” isn’t as extreme as “F–”, but it’s further along in that direction. The trigram probabilities and subcategorization of What the ____ make it similarly difficult to read “@$#&!” as anything but fuck. So maybe this headline writer was smart. Maybe by shifting the obfuscated swear word to the front they introduced just the right level of ambiguity to let you catch the cursing joke without compelling you to imagine the actual words.