Yes, We Used That F—ing Word. And Not Always Wisely

Screen shot 2013-12-11 at 10.06.09 AMBy Jack Limpert

Here’s how this week’s profanity brouhaha started:

Metro:US, a free daily newspaper, published a story about people on the island of Madagascar (in the Indian ocean off the coast of Southeast Africa) eating lemurs (a small primate). The story called lemurs “adorable creatures,” said poverty on the island was causing people to eat them, and then ran an interview with actor Morgan Freeman on the subject.

Freeman, who did the voiceover for a nature documentary about Madagascar, is asked, “So people are actually eating lemurs now.” He answered, “It’s not f—ing OK. Yeah, people are poor. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that.”

Metro:US ran the story with this headline: “Eating lemurs: Not f—ing OK”

Jason Gay, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, yesterday sent out a tweet: “Now this is how to
write a headline: simple, declarative, provocative,” adding a picture of the Metro:US headline.

Jim Romenesko, on his media blog, ran the Jason Gay tweet and a picture of the f—ing headline, adding his own hed, “WHY THIS IS A GOOD HEADLINE.”

Richard Mattersdorff, a reader of this editing-writing blog, sent me an email asking, “Ever use f—ing in Washingtonian?”

Yes, we did—if it was in a quote and the quote was important to the story. Would we have used it if it wasn’t in a quote? We never did and it’s hard to come up with a justification for letting a writer use the f-word just to use it.

It did take a painful experience for us to come up with that editorial policy.

Back in 1969—my first year at The Washingtonian—I assigned a writer to do a story on Ted Williams. The great Boston Red Sox hitter was in his first year managing the Washington Senators, and the writer, Tom Dowling, hung out with Williams as much as possible during the season.

We published the story at the start of the 1970 season, billing it as “The Uncensored Ted Williams.” Here are a few Williams quotes from the story:

“Listen, when I got down to spring training I told Sid Hudson to mark down the pitchers with the breaking stuff. He marked two, Bertina and Pascual. Two out of 22! Christ, that’s a disgrace. The slider is the most important pitch in baseball. You look at the guys who won for us; they did it by learning the breaking stuff. In this sport, when in doubt throw a slider. Listen, I hate to give you guys  too much fucking dope. The whole league will know what we’re doing.”

Williams looked at the tape recorder and cleared his throat. “Let me say that no one has been more enthusastic than the ninehundredthousandfuckingfans,” he beamed. “Keep that on your fucking tape if you can, buddy.”

A day after that March issue hit the newsstands and the homes of subscribers, the phone calls started, mostly from fathers of kids playing Little League ball. You can imagine the scene as the kid picks up the magazine to read about the greatest baseball hitter of all time and then asks Dad, “What does ninehundredthousandfuckingfans mean?

The phone calls to the editor were followed by calls and letters to the circulation department canceling subscriptions.

We then decided the word was spelled “f—ing” and we weren’t going to be casual about using it. As for using it in a headline, we never got that desperate.

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