When you call someone a jagoff, what exactly are you trying to say?

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Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto wanted jagoff to be included in the dictionary.
  • Keith Srakocic/AP
  • Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto wanted "jagoff" to be included in the dictionary.
Journalists are obliged to report what people do. What people say is another matter. If I shoot you, my act of aggression will be described as it occurred. If I insult you I'll be paraphrased. The American press thoroughly covered the Charlie Hebdo massacre—except it refused to publish examples of the cartoons the Islamist killers claimed to be avenging. "At what point does news value override our standards?" asked Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Times, which decided the cartoons were unprintable and as a reward was accused of "absolute cowardice."

The matter at hand, fortunately, is infinitely less grave.

The other day, arts critic Andrew Patner of WFMT (and a friend of mine), sent out an email to his "WBEZ friends." Patner was distressed.

Two weeks ago it was constant promotion and then broadcast of a segment about "Chicago jagoffs" on The Afternoon Shift. (I and my Mother, whom I was visiting, jointly turned off the segment just after it started. We counted that we had already heard the word "jagoff" 11 times on WBEZ that afternoon.)

Today/Friday on the 4 PM news it's a "pissed off" owner of the Bears, Mrs. McCaskey.

When will there be segments on "Chicago cocksuckers," "pussyeaters," or "buttlickers"? Or newsreading about "fucking crazy" CEOs and "batshit" aldermen?

Why is the language that I just used here—and which I would never use myself except for such illustration, and certainly would never use on the radio—any worse than what you all are using? Is there any line on language not to cross? I am speaking here of news and information program, not selective use by artists or musicians nor the use of language specifically to raise free speech questions.

Virginia McCaskey is matriarch of the family that owns the Bears. If her son, George McCaskey, chairman of the Bears, tells reporters after a 5-11 season that his mom is "pissed off," what can they do but say so? But 20 years ago they wouldn't have said so: dashes and euphemisms would have been marshaled to keep the sports section fit for eight-year-olds. It's still fit for eight-year-olds, but they’re more worldly than they used to be.

Jagoff is another matter.

When I see this word, I have always believed I was looking at jackoff pasteurized. A jackoff, or jagoff, didn't necessarily jack off, or jerk off, but he was a serious jerk—such a total obnoxious loser that he deserved a put-down too potent to print without misspelling—a nod to decorum along the lines of Norman Mailer littering The Naked and the Dead (published, it must be said, in 1948) with fuggin.

The truth turns out to be more complicated. Jagoff means the worst kind of jerk, all right, but it’s been traced back to northern Britain, where a thorn bush is known as a jaggerbush and to jag means to prick or poke. Immigrants brought jagoff to Pittsburgh, where it's a proud regionalism that last fall a local website, yajagoff.com, crusaded to have admitted to reputable dictionaries. The mayor of Pittsburgh spoke up in favor.

The segment Patner heard on Afternoon Shift was a discussion by Bill Savage, a Northwestern English professor (and friend of mine), of a project he's involved with at Lumpen magazine, a "field guide" to Chicago jagoffs in the February issue. Savage talked to WBEZ's Justin Kaufmann a little about jagoff's etymology, denied it means what everyone thinks it means, and went on, "It does have a really powerful l meaning in terms of basically selfish people who annoy you."

Goli Sheikholeslami, president of Chicago Public Media, wrote back to Patner. Look in the Dictionary of American Regional English, she advised him. The word "does not mean what people think it means. It is a word that describes a personality trait not a crude action."

Furthermore, she went on, "pissed off" was a direct quote. "In neither of these situations were we taking artistic license to spice up our coverage but rather reporting on credible news and information. We take our role in the community very seriously and in both of these situations, I believe the use of the specific language was not only appropriate but necessary."

Patner wasn't mollified. "I am well aware of the arguments—not accepted at all by many—that there is a separate derivation for the stupid word in question. So what? If it sounds the same as 'stupid childish offensive masturbator' and requires a writing teacher at Northwestern to provide a citation to justify its use in proper discussion, why is it used on the radio?

"And regarding the Halas/McCaskeys: Will WBEZ now quote every person who says any word or words because that person used them and you would not wish to misquote that person? Will you drop the bleep button . . . ?

"I certainly did not think that WBEZ was trying to 'spice up' its coverage. I think that it was trying to dumb it down and I think, sadly, it succeeded. It's a further example of the general sloppiness that has been heard on news hosting and information programming on the station in recent years . . ."

Savage wasn't aware that Sheikholeslami and Patner had exchanged views, so I forwarded everything to him. He promptly wrote back.

"When American media shy from the actual truth of language, they also shy from the actual truth of reality," he weighed in. "For instance, remember back in 2004 when Dick Cheney told Senator Leahy of Vermont, on the floor of the Senate, to 'Go fuck yourself'? All the American news media danced around what the Vice President of the United States actually said. They could not use that evil word! They could not quote what he actually said! Someone might cancel their subscription out of disgust at . . . the truth.

"I suspect that this attitude of prim, even prissy, linguistic propriety had some effect on outlets like the New York Times refusing to use the word 'torture' to describe what was clearly torture being conducted by the United States at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and black sites across the world. After all, if you cannot use the actual word the VP says, maybe you cannot use the accurate word to describe what the VP does.

"As long as American media act as though everything has to be made safe for the most easily offended reader, listener or viewer, it will continue to be watered down and worth less than it might be. . ."

Then he and I talked directly. "We've got freedom of speech but we shouldn’t use it or we might offend somebody. That's a jagoff attitude,” Savage said. And he reminded me that jagoff "doesn’t mean what you think it means."

But, I protested, a word does mean what you think it means. If everyone thinks jagoff means pud-pulling asshole, then that's what it means, etymology be damned. I told Savage my view had always been that jagoff was a processed obscenity like friggin, and I wasn't about to change my mind.

He asked me if I'd heard about the time Dorothy Parker was introduced to Norman Mailer.

I hadn't.

Said Parker, "Oh, yes, Mr. Mailer. You’re the young man who doesn't know how to spell fuck."

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