For Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, it was a busy week. It is standard procedure at The Post that use of certain words must first have his approval, or that of Managing Editor Len Downie. Mr. Downie was saddled last week with such prosaic problems as the widely scattered local elections, a few other fast-breaking stories and in the middle of all that one of the biggest computer failures this newspaper has experienced since it switched to cold type. So the burden of passing on the use of certain so-called dirty words this past week has been in the exclusive domain of Mr. Bradlee.
On three separate occasions, he was called upon for Solomon-like decisions. Twice, he flashed the green light; once, it was thumbs down.
His two approvals are what kept the ombudsman busy. One was on page 42 of last Sunday's magazine, in the excellent cover story on Presidential Press Secretary Jim Brady, whose life was abruptly and tragically changed by John Hinckley. In venting his understandable fury at the gunman, Mr. Brady used what is referred to in polite society as a four-letter word. Considering the context and the need to convey to the reader the full measure of Mr. Brady's inner rage, it would have been obscene to have deleted that word, or to have used a dash. But in the next paragraph, his doctor repeats the word. It should have been blue-penciled. That was the editor showing off; furthermore, second usage diluted the impact.
On Friday, readers had to queue up to register their complaints over a phrase in the "Bloom County" comic strip, which, I'm afraid, I'll have to repeat here to make the point. The last panel contained the phrase: "Reagan Sucks." More than a thousand papers take "Bloom County, " and I understand that many of them either didn't use the strip last Friday, or substituted the word "Stinks" for "Sucks," a distinction that escapes me because to anyone under 40 they mean one and the same thing. But times change and so does language usage. So while the objections to the phrase are basically generational, not moral, my complaint is political. It is always open season on presidents, but the presidency should be treated with more respect.
With so much thought devoted this week to word usage, I hearkened back to a problem that faced newspapers during World War II, when an admiral in the middle of a major sea engagement with the Japanese was asked by Washington for a brief appraisal of the battle. He responded with five words which were gleefully relayed to the press, posing a problem of taste to the editors. One of the active words was unacceptable to a family newspaper. The problem was resolved by reducing the five-word phrase to an acronym that caught on immediately and has since become part of the English language. The word is "snafu." Here's how Webster's defines it: "(s)ituation, (n)ormal, (a)ll, (f)ouled -- a euphemism -- (u)p." Thus, the dictionary editors retained their etymological integrity without offending the sensibilities of little old ladies.
One cannot accept the free use of scatological language in any mass-produced publication, certainly not in a newspaper that is invited into the living room, regardless of TV's flagrant disregard for taste. But as even Webster's recognizes, one should not totally insulate the reader from the facts of life either.
The comic pages last week were the main source of trouble, but it was not confined to dirty words. A "Far Side" cartoon showed an examining doctor addressing a half-naked patient who looked like a dragon-gorilla imbecile as "Mr. Rosenburg." The Jewish community responded in force. Why -- oh, why -- couldn't Gary Larson have used "Jones" or "Smith"? They never complain. I pointed out to the first caller that what the cartoonist really had in mind was that infamous member of Hitler's Cabinet who was hanged at Nuremberg. The caller snapped back: "That Nazi spelled his name with an "e," not a "u." Some days you can't win.
The last call of the week came from Kay Test, a retired science teacher in Alexandria, who complained about a "Frank & Ernest" strip. There were two words in the panel: "Drosophilia Melanegaster."
"That's the scientific term for the common fruit fly," she said, "and you've misspelled both words." She was absolutely right.