Having acquired a new editor, the London Evening Standard took the risk of acquiring a new title: the Effing Standard. Veronica Wadley had boldly gone further than 26 predecessors had gone before. The F-word was spelled out 11 times in a single piece.
In truth, Brian Sewell’s exquisite essay "In defence of the F-word" would have been beyond satire if strewn with 33 asterisks. It had to run with F-words full out, or not at all.
It was the editor’s call. Did she call right? Did she call wrong? The judgement that mattered was that of Standard readers (particularly one Paul Dacre, a predecessor in her chair and now group editor-in-chief). Whatever, the faithful old asterisk was soon back in the ascendant.
The Standard ducked its next effing opportunity, in a media column item referring to Stephen Pollard’s infamous Express leader, fiddling the initials of its 14 pars to offer two fingers to the proprietor.
No longer bowing to Sewell, the Standard now forbore to spell out the Pollard signal. It settled for "F*** off, Desmond." A few issues later, another of its columnists was settling for "the Big F".
The naughties continue to be so much more refined, and so much more consistent, than the haughties. Unlike The Guardian, The Observer and The Independent, tabloids simply don’t spell out such words. (The Sun has even referred to its rival as The M*rr*r.)
Last week, a M*rr*r piece on Tourette’s Syndrome, which is symptomised by compulsive swearing, told of a mum unable to take her little lad into shops because he keeps shouting "F*** off". On another page, someone was delicately described as "a horse’s a***".
Over at the News of the World, its magazine feature entitled "Wash your mouth out" was spattered with asterisked quotes from foul-mouthed stars: "F***s. T***s. W*****s. B******s. Motherf*****s." For those weary of asterisks, accompanying headlines offered intriguing variations. "F*&?%!" said Britney Spears. "B>!£%?@!" said Simon Cowell. "W*?%!" and "T*!?%!" said Rupert Everett.
Britain’s best-selling paper judges (no doubt correctly) that family readers are not ready for full-out expletives, absurd as it is to substitute symbols preceded by initials that virtually utter the forbidden words.
Though obscenities are daily voiced unbleeped on TV and in cinemas and theatres, Sewell’s argument is unlikely to win universal endorsement for a while yet.
After all, it took centuries for Damn and Bloody and Hell to cease being printed as D- and B– and H-.