Of Cans and Cabooses

Tyler Silvest, via Flicker

On Monday, a  Colorado jury found that a Denver disc jockey had in fact committed assault and battery against Taylor Swift during a pre-concert photo session in 2013. Some dirtbags like the DJ apparently feel that celebrities can be groped — a form of sexual assault — with impunity, and the main takeaway of the trial was the good news that the dirtbag in this case could not.

The second takeaway is that mainstream journalism apparently does not possess an adequate term for the part of Swift’s anatomy that the DJ groped. That part is the buttocks.

I noticed this last week, when reading the first New York Times article on the trial. It reported Swift’s allegation that the dirtbag — whom I’ll call DB henceforth — had “grabbed her bottom.” Bottom strikes me as an odd word, a tad informal and British, to appear in the Newspaper of Record. Searching in Google Books and elsewhere, you find, oddly, that it’s commonly used in the contexts of both nursery schools (it was favored in the ones my kids went to) and erotica.

A subsequent Times article reported the charge that the DB had “touched Ms. Swift’s rear.” Rear (a variant of rear end) is also rather too colloquial, although it has a long history. Green’s Dictionary of Slang offers a first citation of 1768, in The Gentleman’s Bottle-Companion: “Have a care, says he, of the rear, says she.” Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep (1934) has the line, “The worst we can get is a kick in the rear.”

I would venture that this body part has more synonyms and euphemisms than any other, and maybe than any other word. But amazingly, there’s no term that comes off as straightforward and uninflected — to my ears, anyway. Even buttocks has a technical feel to it, and posterior sounds like hypercorrection. The other variations all have some degree of jokeyness, vulgarity, and/or slang, including:

Ass (in British English, arse); backside (used by the Associated Press, Washington Post, and New York Daily News in their Swift coverage); booty; bum (British); buns; butt; caboose; can; derrière; duff; fanny; heinie; keister; rump; seat; tail; and the Yiddish tuchas, tushey, or tush.

The sensitivity and sometimes embarrassment over naming this body part goes way back. In 1960, John Updike submitted to the then-prudish The New Yorker a short story called “A&P,” which contained the line: “She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can.” His editor, William Maxwell, suggested changing can to butt, to which Updike replied:

You must be kidding about “butt.” It’s really just as crude as “can.” I think the real answer is “tail” — but every time I sit down to go over the proof of A&P, I choke up with the silly sacrifice of “can.”

A compromise was reached in which the young lady was described as having a “sweet broad backside.” Updike restored can when he published “A&P” in a short-story collection.

Updike’s comment about butt is interesting. I feel that over the past half-century-plus, the word has gotten less crude. I use it in mixed company, and in the classroom on the rare occasions that the topic comes up. But it’s still too informal for The New York Times.

In my view, there’s a mot juste here. The mot doesn’t meet the Times’s standard for its own reporters’ writing. However, to its credit, the paper will use it in quotations when pertinent. And in her testimony, Taylor Swift — to her credit — used it to clearly, graphically, and unambiguously describe the assault committed on her. The DB, she said, “grabbed my bare ass.”

There’s a reason the woman writes songs that sell millions of copies.






Return to Top