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When a newspaper has a potty mouth

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 23, 2008

At the college newspaper where I work, the question of how to handle expletives occasionally comes up. While we haven’t printed the F-bomb under my watch, we have printed a few other questionable words, including “bullshit” and “pussy.” In those cases, the words were used in direct quotes in entertainment stories, not news stories. And in those cases, I consulted with the editors, who were fine with it. It wasn’t exactly the most controversial issue that’s ever come up.

But where do you draw the line? Do you limit expletives to features? Are they acceptable only in direct quotes? Editorials?

What about headlines?

“Jeez, never in headlines! That’s going a bit far,” you might think to yourself. Normally I would agree with that, and I initially agreed with John McIntyre, who suggested that b, a free Baltimore paper, went a little far when it printed a headline that read “DOUCHEBAG!”

Full disclosure: I do not really find the word offensive, but I don’t find too many words offensive. The word doesn’t carry the hateful or hurtful tone that, say, ethnic slurs have. But on the surface, I thought printing the word in a headline was definitely a no-no. Surely you could limit the word’s use to the article’s text (if it’s absolutely necessary) and come up with a different headline.

But then I read the actual story that accompanied the headline (I needed some context, after all). The article describes various types of contemporary douchebags and outlines some behavior traits of said types. It’s supposed to be humorous, although I don’t find it particularly funny. I do, however, have a different feeling about the headline now.

This paper had an entire article dedicated to douchebags. Obviously, the story is not to be taken seriously; anyone who visits the Web site can see that for themselves. In a story that describes the ins and outs of douchebaggery, it seems impossible to avoid using the word in the headline.

Whether to print the story in the first place is a whole other issue. (I wouldn’t have run it, mostly because it’s not clever or original.) But let’s just take this from a copy editor’s standpoint. The story is going in, no matter what, and it’s time to choose a headline.

Choosing any other word would seem a bit misleading. The best I can come up with is “D-bag,” but that’s only an abbreviated form, so it’s not a true alternative. Choosing another noun, like “jerk” or “loser,” doesn’t quite convey the same meaning as “douchebag.” A douchebag is not the same thing as a jerk. As with any set of near-synonyms, there are subtle differences.

So what’s a copy editor to do? Think about the audience. I would imagine that this paper’s readership is mostly made up of students and young adults. They could probably get away with using the word without many regular readers complaining. And if anyone was offended, it should have been at the article itself, not the use of the word. In the end, “douchebag” will likely fall into the the category of taboo words that slowly gained acceptability. In his post, McIntyre mentions “sucks” and “scumbag” as examples of this. We can only hope that “douchebag” will have a similar fate.

Side note: As I am writing this, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” is airing a sketch about using a particle collider to smash celebrity douchebags together.


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