Salon, which last year chronicled the New York Times’ steadfast refusal to use the word “fuck” in print, has spotted what it claims to be the Grey Lady’s first use of the famous profanity in the paper’s printed history. (That’s not completely accurate, but I’ll get to that.) “With the discretion of a well-bred debutante, the Times has just lost its F-bomb virginity, so to speak,” writes Salon senior writer Laura Miller, pointing to page 86 of the August 25 issue of T, the paper’s fashion magazine. It’s on that page that the Times magazine features the opening lines of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, Dissident Gardens:
“Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening.”
Of course, burying the F-bomb under several dozen glossy pages is a far cry from shouting it from the rooftops, as Miller notes, or even using it in a more traditional story in the paper’s significantly less-colorful printed pages. (Also worth noting: The section featuring Lethem’s passage—which includes the opening lines of four other new books—doesn’t appear online.) Nonetheless, the author said he was “delighted” to discover his apparent first. “If I’d had the foresight to make it one of my life’s aspirations, I’d have done so,” Lethem wrote in an e-mail to Salon. “Instead it lands as dumb luck. My U.K. friend Dan Fox pointed out that it puts me with John Cleese, the first person to say ‘shit’ on the BBC.”
Lethem’s understandable excitement aside, if we want to get technical (and, of course, Twitter does) he has some competition when it comes to breaking the Times’ F-bomb-barrier. The word appeared in the Times at least once before, in 1998 when the paper published the entire Starr Report in full. In part five of that report, we find this passage:
In a recorded conversation later on October 6, Ms. Lewinsky said she wanted two things from the President. The first was contrition: He needed to ” acknowledge … that he helped fuck up my life.’ The second was a job, one that she could obtain without much effort: ”I don’t want to have to work for this position … I just want it to be given to me.”
That’s notable given the editorial contortions required by Times editors and reporters over the years to avoid the four-letter word, and means Lethem’s claim to the record-breaking profanity is far from undisputed. Still, opting not to censor a word when republishing a thirteen-part report strikes me as significantly different decision than the T staff’s seemingly more conscious one to actively select and publish Lethem’s F-bomb-containing opening. There’s also the not-so-small matter of the fact that the Starr report’s single use of the word “fuck”—in a twist almost too good to be true—isn’t literal. So in that regard, at least, Lethem’s new title appears safe.
This post has been updated to clarify that the Times published the Starr Report in print and on its website.