BOB GARFIELD: The letter C stood for Chicago Tribune last week, when editors decided that a freelancer's story about the origin and use of a word beginning with C and rhyming with stunt should not run in its Wednesday newspaper. But most of those papers had already been printed, so Tribune staffers rushed over to the paper's printing depot and spent the night removing the entire Women News section by hand from just over 600,000 newspapers. All this, despite the fact that the word itself, which many people consider the dirtiest in the English language, did not actually appear in freelance writer Lisa Bertagnoli's story. You won't hear it in this one either, from Chicago Public Radio's Diantha Parker.
DIANTHA PARKER: Lisa Bertagnoli has a master's degree in linguistics, and her story explored whether the "C" word was undergoing what linguists call "semantic bleaching," the way the term for a female dog is now sometimes used as a verb. She's been hearing the "C" word and reference to it on the street and on television, including the Sex and the City catchphrase "See you next Tuesday."
LISA BERTAGNOLI: My choir director the other day said he had heard "C you in Toledo." When I was little, the Chicago joke that was very famous was "What three streets in Chicago rhyme with vagina?" And the answers were: "Melvina, Paulina, and Lunt."
DIANTHA PARKER: But when she opened the Tribune last Wednesday morning, and didn't see her story, Bertagnoli figured its replacement, about women whose fiances had been killed in Iraq, was part of pre-election coverage. She emailed her editor and went for a swim. When she got back, a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times was on the phone.
LISA BERTAGNOLI: He wanted me to say something, and I was just -- I was kind of in shock. I couldn't believe it.
DIANTHA PARKER: Bertagnoli says she didn't speak with her Tribune editor until several hours after the Sun-Times had literally broken the news to her, and the Tribune is refusing to discuss the matter further with anyone else beyond its brief note to readers published that Wednesday. The note says: "A few copies of an article about vulgar slang referring to women may have been missed," and that "the paper regrets any offense and inconvenience to its readers."
MAN: Now to Phil Ponce and his panel with a discussion about the limits of what's permissible to say or see in the news. Phil…
DIANTHA PARKER: The next evening, Bertagnoli appeared as part of a roundtable on the local PBS magazine Chicago Tonight with the head of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Loren Ghiglione and The Chicago Reader's media columnist Michael Miner. As with this story, Tribune editors declined to participate. You can actually hear host Phil Ponce banging his hands on the table in embarrassment as the four try to discuss the story's title.
PHIL PONCE: And we have the, we have the headline that Lisa recommended, and we'll put it on the screen, and as you just said, Dean, the-- your suggested headline was "Move Over, "B," Here Comes "C," -- "B" referring to one-- one-- vulgar word, I suppose [LAUGHTER] in, in lieu of another, and the headline that was in the-- that had been printed -- is, is this one, and it alludes, obviously...
DIANTHA PARKER: The Trib's headline was: "You C _ N T Say that, Can You?" And it ran next to a black and white photograph of a woman's head with a red lipsticked X drawn over her mouth. But one of Bertagnoli's main points is that printing the "C" word, which her story didn't, and saying it, are entirely different. The word itself has been said for centuries. It stems from the middle-low German cunta, which refers to a woman's outer genitalia, and the many puns on the word spoken by Shakespeare's characters are beloved by generations of 12th graders.
LISA BERTAGNOLI: At one point Hamlet asks Ophelia if he can put his head in her lap, and she says, "No." And then he realizes why she objected, and he says to her, "Oh, did you think I meant country matters?"
DIANTHA PARKER: Fast-forwarding to the 20th Century, Bertagnoli also points out that the title phrase of the Sex Pistols song "Pretty Vacant" leans on the last syllable of "Vacant" pretty hard for some ears.
SEX PISTOLS: [SINGING] OH, WE'RE SO PRETTY, OH, SO PRETTY-- VA-- CANT
DIANTHA PARKER: But that depends on who's listening. She says that both men and women seem to mind the word more the older they are.
LISA BERTAGNOLI: Women in their 20s - oh, yeah, fine - I say that to my friends; I refer to a part of my body by that word. No big deal. Older women -- oh, my God -- shocking. Never use that word. Vile, repulsive. I would faint if somebody said it to me, etc.
DIANTHA PARKER: Bertagnoli says this divisiveness is one reason some women say the word is political -something violent and hurtful, to be reclaimed.
LISA BERTAGNOLI: It's the sociological in-group, out-group notion. The "N" word. The "F" word as applies to homosexuals - that's another example of that. It's okay for the in-group to use that word referring to themselves, but God forbid somebody from the out-group use it.
DIANTHA PARKER: Media outlets create their own in and out groups. If history is any guide, eventually they'll bleach all the shock out of the "C" word. Linguists say that the spoken word changes much faster than what's written, so Bertagnoli reckons the word will continue to be broadcast long before it's printed in the daily paper. But since today's teenagers are tomorrow's editors, it's really only a matter of time before newsprint ink runs blue. For On the Media, I'm Diantha Parker.