You can't say "hell" in the New York Times?

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  • Patricia Drury

[Update: Geez louise! The word in question was actually "fuck," which is a strikingly different word than "hell"—my apologies for the sloppiness. Still, as it turns out, there are few circumstances under which you can actually use the word "hell" in the Times. Read on.]

I hadn’t realized how fervently the New York Times’ style guide counsels against profanity until I read the following, from a remembrance of Steve Jobs:

The satirical newspaper The Onion underscored this point nicely in its news story on Mr. Jobs’s death. The headline, modified here to replace an expletive, said: “Last American Who Knew What the Heck He Was Doing Dies.”

You can’t say “hell” in the New York Times? Apparently not. Earlier this year in a sidebar, the paper excerpted some of its guidelines on profanity:

The Times virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones. In part the concern is for the newspaper’s welcome in classrooms and on breakfast tables in diverse communities nationwide. But a larger concern is for the newspaper’s character.

. . . including standards for the usage of words like “hell” and “damn”:

Profanity in its milder forms (hells, damns and, far less acceptable, religious oaths) can sometimes be justified — in combat reporting, for example, to convey the depth of anguish or pain — but those who print it should be aware that it will outrage some readers. . . . But if the paper is peppered with it, the news report is cheapened and the character of the paper tarnished. Rationing must be stringent.

(This, by the way, is from a paper recently all atwitter about how often you hear the word “vagina” on TV these days.)

Relatedly, a Google search on the Times’s profanity strictures led to this interesting article from a 1976 issue of Time magazine, which noted new editions of both AP and New York Times stylebooks. Feminism was a big concern:

Feminism has set a small swarm of lightning bugs flickering, and the Times snuffs out most of them. Ms., for example, is to be used only in quoted material or in discussing the term itself . . . writers and editors are warned not to use "designations that are obviously disparaging." Examples: doll, weaker sex, the little woman and, in certain contexts, words like housewife, divorcee and sculptress. Gay, says the Times without explanation, is not to be used as a synonym for homosexual.

Also! It explained some weird shit that I'd noticed in old Chicago Tribune articles:

Only last September the paper finally abandoned the last remnants of its idiosyncratic "Tribune spelling," decreed 42 years ago by Publisher Robert ("Bertie") McCormick. Now thoro, burocracy, thru and dozens of other words are spelled the right way.

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