Monday, March 5, 2007

more dirty words

I was listening to NPR, and this story comes on about a controversial word written on the first page of a new children's book: scrotum. At first I thought this was a little over exaggerated because scrotum is the anatomically correct name for a male body part, but I am not the parent of a third grader. The book is this year's Newbery Medal winner The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron (story link). The author explained that the word was crucial to the overall meaning of the rest of the story, and was not just used to push the envelope of what words are acceptable.

I imagine that the word scrotum was discussed by the author, copyeditors, and editors before publication since it is children’s literature. The story got me thinking, and it seems to relate to Sarah's Risky Business post from last week on the role of diction in writing. I think this is another good example of how changing just one word could have far reaching consequences, and not only in copyeditorauthor correspondence. A single word can change the message or vitality of a work, or can upset and offend readers, and this word doesn’t even have to be a four letter word.

5 comments:

Pat said...

Very interesting. Where children are concerned, extra precautions are taken. The manner in which they learn about things like anatomy affect—or can affect—their self-regard, their attitudes toward people, their interpretation and structuring of the ways of the world, and so forth.

One thing I'm sure everyone involved in the book considered was whether or not its intended readers could add this information to their ken in a positive and healthy way. The answer was no doubt yes.

I remember a disturbing story that MANOA published some years ago: "Woman in Blue." Though a good story, it disturbed me so much that I couldn't copyedit it. After it was published, we heard from one of her subscribers; she said she was cancelling her subscription because of the "sick" material we were publishing. She didn't mention the story by name, but I've always wondered if she had it in mind.

Pat said...

Sorry, I didn't explain the connection between Megan's post and my remarks about "Woman in Blue." I don't recall any words in the story being offensive; perhaps it was the tale that the story told that offended our subscriber.

Some kind of explanation, perhaps in the editor's note, might have helped her understand the work. Generally speaking, we avoid this kind of explanation, though. Instead, we depend on our readers' familiarity with literary genres to guide them through the stories, poems, and other work we publish.

Jill said...

Scrotum! What! Oh please, like kids don't know a million words for scrotum by the third grade.

As far as consequences, it seems these days anyway controversy, especially in the market of books, is a good thing. The use of the word scrotrum got this book on NPR! Some luck...

What is the role of copyeditor here? Query author.

Hmm, wish I had been listening to that segement!

Pat said...

(from Moon-Yun)

I was watching the "Today Show" this morning and they were interviewing female students who had been suspended for using the word, "vagina." It was for a play or presentation, I believe. They were warned but went ahead and did it anyway. The playwrite for "Vagina Monologue" was there and she commended them.

I, however, didn't see the girls as heros. That can be such an "in your face" kind of word that I really don't care to hear it outside of anatomy class or the play. It's so unladylike to go around blurting it.

Where's the sense of mystery and feminity? I don't need everyone's play-by-play everytime they go to the toilet.

Jill said...

Yes, I think people have def. become less well-mannered and I think that is both a positive thing and a negative one. One hand, that is an example of hegemonic devices being changed/altered; on the other hand, perhaps it is just another way for people to think they now have the "choice" to be crude and disgusting and somehow more "free."

Well, I don't think toilet humor at all, but I recognize that that's the way I've been raised (or "culturally/socially constructed" to believe.)

I'm not an essentialist so I don't think that girls should be girly, but I do think there are definite roles established by cultures for girls. Some people think that's good other people think it's confining and limiting.

On another note, perhaps it would be relevant to consider why "The Today Show" ran this story. Using women's bodies has always been a good way to get viewer attention, no? Whether it's "digusting" or an social commentary on the way women's bodies are continally oppressed, it makes for good TV because people still find the v-word offensive. And being offensive happens to make for higher ratings. :-)