Requiem for the Asterisk
Omissions are not accidents.
— Marianne Moore, Complete Poems, author’s note
This election season has had many unexpected consequences, but none has been more distressing than its effect on civility. Civility was long thought to be the hall mark of a civilized society, but as the presidential campaign has drawn to a welcome end, so has civility. Whereas in times gone by, those running for high office had differences of opinion and did not hesitate to criticize one another, the ad hominem attacks levelled by Donald Trump against his primary opponents during the early months of the campaign, followed by similar attacks on Hillary Clinton during the final months of the campaign have brought the level of discourse to a new low. And no part of the English language is more distressed by this turn of events than the asterisk, that tiny symbol that has long been a part of the world of print.
The asterisk is distressed because its most important role has been taken away from it and it is left with only a passive and considerably less interesting role to play in contemporary publications. (Some may observe that in some publications the “dash” rather than the asterisk is used to indicate omitted material. There is no need to pity the dash. Unlike the asterisk, it has many uses besides indicating omitted material.)
The passive role that remains for the asterisk is alerting the reader to the fact that at the bottom of the page will be found a comment that helps to explain the textual material next to which it appears or, alternatively, directs the reader to source material. This is a vital service to the reader and the asterisk should not consider that role unimportant. However, in the civilized discourse venue, the other purpose of the asterisk was to protect the reader from a word that, it was generally agreed, might be offensive to the reader, if spelled out in its entirety. The reader would, in most instances, know exactly what letters were omitted but their absence protected the readers’ sensibilities. The asterisk performed its task for many years but, because of the debasement of the English language during the presidential campaign, will no longer be as frequently needed to serve the valuable function it has served for so many years.
Thanks to Donald Trump’s choice of words in public and private and reports of those words in inter alia, The New York Times and The Washington Post, there are no longer any words that need the asterisk except, perhaps, in headlines. An example of its continued use in headlines can be found in a story that appeared on October 10 in The Fix in The Washington Post. The headline was: “Clinton aide to Donald Trump ‘go * * * * yourself.’” Although asterisks appeared in the headline, the word in its entirety can be found in the article itself. Although this writer is but a casual observer of the newspaper business, it seems safe to say that in the not too distant past, that headline would not have appeared in the paper at all and the word that the asterisks sought to disguise would almost certainly not have appeared in the text of the article that the headline announced.
The New York Times of October 16th offered three more examples of language that would never have appeared in that paper before the debasement of the language brought to us at least in part by Mr. Trump. In the column by well-known columnist, Maureen Dowd, the asterisk was sadly missing in her column (but continues to play a role in this column) when Ms. Dowd reported that Mr. Trump agreed with Howard Stern that his 23-year old daughter, Ivanka, was a “***** of ”, a description most of us would never have expected to hear a father use when describing his daughter nor expected to see in its entirety in the NYT. On that same page, Nicholas Kristof repeated that quote from Mr. Trump and asked how the public would respond were Secretary Clinton the speaker, and referred to the size of her v**, the way Mr. Trump trumpeted the size of his p****. As noteworthy as those comments might be, most of us would have considered them best referred to by such expressions as “a bodily part” or in the case of a p * * * * of *** as “a crude description of an attractive woman.”
On October 8, 2016, on the front page of the New York Times the lead article was entitled “Tape Reveals Trump Boast About Groping Women.” In the second paragraph of that story, a story having nothing to do with dogs or cats, the words bitch and pussy appear and in the third paragraph the word f***” appears unassisted by asterisks. This is the front page of the New York Times. Perhaps its masthead should be changed from: “All the News that’s Fit to Print” to “All the News that’s Fit to Print and Words Once Thought not Fit to Print.” Perhaps the editors think those words have become such a standard part of our every day parlance that there is no need to protect our sensibilities from them and, accordingly, the asterisk can be dispensed with. It will be missed.