US Vice President Cheney minced no words recently when he vulgarly proposed that Senator Patrick Leahy do something impossible to himself. Most US newspaper editors, however, wary of offending public sensibilities, chose not to repeat his verb and called it instead "the F-word." By so doing, they called attention to their vigilance against dirty words and also to a word weed spreading through the language like dandelions.
The -- word: This usage probably began as a coy way to avoid obscenities and delete expletives. Garry Trudeau described the main ones in a Doonesbury comic strip last month in which a Cheney voice announces that "I not only intend to use the F-word from now on, I'm also using the S-word, the C-word, the P-word and the J-word," leaving readers to wonder what curse the J-word might euphemize.
This usage -- I call it letteracy -- is hardly limited to dirty words. It has effloresced since 1988, when the usual proprietor of this space commented on three geopolitical examples: "the D-word" for detente; T for taxes; and U for unemployment. "This vogue will probably peter out in a few years," he wrote, "after we go through the alphabet and begin to get confused about what a given letter is supposed to signify."
William Safire was half-prescient. We have, indeed, gone through the alphabet, and what a given letter signifies is often confusing. Yet there is no sign that letteracy is petering out. Here's a glossary of examples.
A -- This may be the granddaddy of letteracy, the Scarlet Letter for adultery. B -- Budget. Biodiversity. C -- Cancer. Cellulite. Class. D -- Detente. Dinosaur. Deficit. E -- Elite. New York Times columnist Barbara Ehrenreich commented on conservatives' promoting the idea of "a sinister, pseudocompassionate liberal elite. ... Note how richly the E-word embellishes the screeds of Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and their co-ideologues." Also: Euphemism. Electronic.
F -- The Cheney F-word episode recalls a moment in 1976 when the New York Times Magazine published a campaign profile of Jimmy Carter by Norman Mailer. Carter had just created a stir by acknowledging that, hardly perfect, he had experienced lust in his heart. Explaining himself, Carter disclaimed making moral judgments about others, saying, "I don't care if people say -- ." In his manuscript, Mailer insisted on spelling out the F-word. After some discussion, here is how he agreed to finish the sentence: "... and he actually said the famous four-letter word that the Times has not printed in the 125 years of its publishing life."
G -- God. Genocide. H -- Horror. Husband. Hostages. Halliburton.
J -- Jews. K -- Kashmir. L -- After Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 election, "the L-word" was widely and sarcastically used to signify liberal. Today the term is known as the title of Showtime's television drama about lesbians. Also: Landslide. M -- Marriage, as in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision last February enabling single-sex unions. In her dissent, Justice Martha Sosman described the controversy as "a pitched battle over who gets to use the `M' word." Also: Math. Malaise.
N -- By far the most common usage of the N-word is to avoid repeating the hateful corruption of the word "Negro" when used by non-blacks. O -- Oil. Organic. Orphanages. P -- Posture. Productivity. Process. Q -- Quagmire. Quality. Quiet. R -- Recession. Revolution. S -- Sustainability. Socialism. Socialization. T -- Terrorism. Torture. U -- Unions. Unilateralism. Uranium.