The New York Observer
13 December 2004, page 6

Off the Record

by Tom Scocca

[Excerpt from Mr. Scocca's column. Interview about "blows."]

What ever happened to "%#$*!!"? On Dec. 6, the Boston Globe's David Mehegan wrote a piece exploring recent tensions between cartoonists and editors about how edgy a comic strip can be. Berkeley Breathed, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Bloom County in the 80's, told Mr. Mehegan that now that he's returned to the profession with his Sunday strip Opus, he finds newspapers to be prissier and higher-strung than ever.

"Breathed," Mr. Mehegan wrote, "has encountered resistance to certain slang phrases that mean 'that stinks.'"

"Certain slang phrases"? WTF? [= What the fuck? --RA]

It was actually one slang word, Mr. Mehegan said: "blows," uttered by the title character in Mr. Breathed's Nov. 21 strip to describe the unpleasantness of life for someone who's 50 years old. After editors objected, Mr. Breathed changed the offending idiom from "Fifty blows!" to the more awkward "Fifty spews!"

But what about Mr. Mehegan's own circumlocution? Are the Globe's news sensibilities also too delicate to handle the word? "The Globe did not say we cannot put 'blows' in the paper," Mr. Mehegan said.

In part, though, that was because Mr. Mehegan didn't ask. The paper does discourage the use of "sucks," which was changed to "stinks" in a Zits cartoon last year. "Blows," according to Mr. Mehegan, is uncommon enough not to have been specifically prohibited -- "It's not on the list of naughty words in our stylebook" -- but he figured it was vulgar enough to raise questions.

So writing on deadline, he said, he made a "practical adjustment" to go with the paraphrase, to "avoid having to get somebody's permission" to include the actual word.

He was also, he said, trying to avoid spending a paragraph describing Mr. Breathed's belief that "blows" isn't a sexual expression at all. "It was elaborate, and my editor found his explanation a stretch," Mr. Mehegan said.

Reached on the phone in California, the cartoonist affirmed that "blows" -- the intransitive form -- has "no sexual connotation," as he sees it. In an impromptu Scatology 101 tutorial, Mr. Breathed explained that he'd first consulted his personal slang and language reference library on the matter. "I would love to say that I found a consensus in the books," the cartoonist said.

But, Mr. Breathed's printed sources were silent on the issue. That led him to put together a usage survey, asking acquaintances what they thought "blows," sans object, meant. "They all thought it came from vomit," Mr. Breathed reported -- as in, short for "blows chunks."

Fifty vomits? "No, I don't think so," said Reinhold Aman, the editor of Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. "Semantically, it doesn't make sense."

Saying "that blows" is akin to saying "that bites," Mr. Aman said. "It's a veiled reference to 'It sucks.'"

Even so, that might not make it a smutty word, said Mr. Aman: "There's a long argument whether 'That sucks' is really sexual or not. Most people think that 'That sucks' has to do with sucking a penis and so on.... It is probably erroneously attributed to being sexual."

Sexual usages of the word "suck," Mr. Aman said, are "very modern." He suggested that the general pejorative could have descended from the 19th-century "egg-sucking dog" -- referring to a pet that betrays its owner by raiding the hen house for a snack.

Still, Mr. Aman allowed, once enough people started thinking of "suck" as a sexual term, it acquired taboo status. "At the same time," he added, "where suck has become a taboo word ... it is being overused, and used so frequently, it's losing its tabooness. You see, it's like a circle."

Mr. Mehegan said that he was allowed to use "suck" in October, writing about Nick Flynn's memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. The Globe rendered the title as Another [expletive] Night in Suck City. "Perhaps 'suck' was O.K. in that case because it was not a verb!" Mr. Mehegan wrote in an e-mail.

Though Mr. Breathed decried the "delicacy" of newspapers today -- "editors are terrified of losing even a single subscriber" -- he said that restrictive standards and practices can sometimes be helpful. Usually, he said, when a word is flagged, "nine out of 10 times you come up with something funnier."

The Nov. 21 strip, Mr. Breathed said, fell in with the other 10 percent. His own father-in-law, he said, had told him the printed punch line was weak. "[He] suggested it would have been funnier if I had said 'blows.'" Mr. Breathed said. "He's a Christian Scientist."

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