John McPhee on the New Yorker's motherfucking history



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  • Expletives no longer deleted
In a story on the merchant marine in the April 9, 1990, New Yorker, John McPhee quoted a sailor: "A seaman smells like a rose when he's got money, but when he has no money they say, 'Fucker, get another ship.'"

The sailor actually had said "motherfucker"—but of the 60,000 words in the story McPhee turned in, that was the one that bothered editor Robert Gottlieb. "In the family of recoiling words included in The New Yorker for the first time, 'motherfucker' had yet to be born," McPhee writes in the magazine this week. "'Fuck' was alive but barely."

In his current essay ("Editors & Publisher"), McPhee, the incomparable nonfiction writer who has contributed to the New Yorker for 39 years, hilariously recounts the efforts of legendary editors Gottlieb and William Shawn to bar the New Yorker's door to certain profanities. (Here's the abstract; the full story's behind a pay wall.) In 1975, long before Gottlieb balked at motherfucker, McPhee changed another quote himself because he knew it wouldn't get past Shawn. The subject of that McPhee piece, a headstrong canoeist, had taken his bowman and McPhee into menacing waters and weather, and the bowman had finally shouted, "You fucking lunatic, head for the shore!" As far as the New Yorker's readers would know, however, the bowman had said, "You God-damned lunatic, head for the shore!"

In 1985, "the soap sank at Proctor & Gamble," McPhee writes. Calvin Trillin had turned in a story about a Nebraska farmer who'd pulled a gun on deputies trying to repossess some of his farm equipment. The farmer had blamed his problems on "goddam fuckin' Jews!"

Trillin felt the verbatim quote was essential. McPhee quotes from the story Trillin himself told two years ago in the Globe and Mail about his effort to keep the quote intact:

Mr. Shawn asked about the possibility of a euphemism. I told him that the quote was from a state-police transcript. We talked about other options for awhile, and finally he said, 'Just go ahead and use it.' I mumbled something and backed slowly out of the office, thinking that if I made an abrupt move he might change his mind.

Ah, but fuckin' is one thing, motherfucker quite another. McPhee notes that his merchant marine story included "various shits and fucks," but Gottlieb, who'd succeeded Shawn in 1987, seemed concerned only with motherfucker. The day the story had to close, Gottlieb called McPhee to his office and asked him to reconsider the word. The sailor hadn't reconsidered the word, McPhee responded; how could they? Gotttlieb said it was possible. McPhee stood by his sailor.

Then Gottlieb wrote MOTHERFUCKER on a Post-it pad in Magic Marker, stuck it to his shirt pocket, and told McPhee he'd call him later that day. The editor spent the next several hours walking the halls of the magazine "wearing his MOTHERFUCKER Post-it as if it were a nametag at a convention," McPhee writes. "He visited just about everybody whose viewpoint he might absorb without necessarily asking for an opinion. In the end, he called on me. He said The New Yorker was not for 'motherfucker.'"

McPhee doesn't mention it, but motherfucker first appeared in the New Yorker four years after his merchant marine story, in a 1994 Shouts and Murmurs essay by Ian Frazier called "On the Floor." Two groups of teens were yelling at each other one night outside Frazier's window. "It sounded like a chorus of high-pitched voices shouting the word 'motherfucker' through a blender," Frazier wrote.

Two years ago the Awl compiled a list of New Yorker firsts in vulgarity. Asshole surfaced in 1994, the Awl said, blow job in 2003, douchebag in 2004, titties back in 1976. The New Yorker's archive commended the Awl in a post a few days later ("Bonfire of the Profanities"), but offered a few corrections. Asshole had not been restrained until 1994, but had appeared in a short story by Judith Speyer in 1975. It had appeared unsparingly, in fact: "Instead he says, almost every night, 'You are an asshole. Your mother is an asshole. Your father is an asshole. I am lost in a den of assholes.'” And blow job had ejaculated into the magazine not in 2003 but in 1995. That error by the Awl was understandable, the New Yorker post charitably said; the Awl's researchers most likely had searched for "blowjob," "whereas New Yorker style is two words: 'blow job.'" Today's New Yorker may be profane, but its styles will ever be sacred.

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