Snafu Ethics

A persnickety Washington Post reader recently reprimanded that paper for using the term “snafu,” which, he said, is but an acronym for “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up” and therefore inappropriate in a “family paper.” Leaving aside whether there actually is such a thing as a family paper any more, the letter once again raised the ethics and civility issue of whether a stand-in for an uncivil word is less uncivil than the word itself. The reader actually agrees with the position I have taken in the past, though he reaches some conclusions from it I would not.

I see no difference from writing “F–k,” “the F-word”, “fug’ (Tennessee Williams), “frack” (“Battlestar Gallactica”) and writing the real word all of these stand for. Similarly, saying someone is an “F-ing a-hole” is no less offensive than calling him a “fucking asshole.” The idea that uncivil people can pretend to be less uncivil by being cute about it or speaking in code is an endorsement of dishonesty, what in a previous post I described as “fake civility.” It is the intent and the meaning that determine incivility. When Williams substituted “fug” for “fuck” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (because he didn’t want the play banned in Boston), he wasn’t making it more genteel just more acceptable to, well, idiots. If a word means fuck, sounds like fuck and is used the same way, it is absurd to find it less objectionable. I think, in some ways, such words are more objectionable. Come out and say what you mean, dang it!

The snafu argument, however, goes too far. Later correspondents with the Post’s editor claimed that the original writer was wrong, that the military acronym stood for “Situation Normal, All Fouled Up,” and not the more vulgar version, because, well, we all know how soldiers and sailors avoid profanity and vulgarity like the plague. The same defense was argued for “FUBAR” (“Fucked Up Beyond All Recovery/Reason/Repair”) by another apologist. Yeah, right. But so what?

Snafu, wherever the letters came from, is now a recognized word in the English language that intends no obscenity or vulgarity whatsoever. Most people who use the word today have no idea where it came from; quite possibly the Post reporter who offended the letter writer didn’t know about the original acronym. Like so many other things, snafu has been purified by time and ignorance. It is completely suitable for “a family newspaper,” and has been for a long while.

10 thoughts on “Snafu Ethics

  1. LOL, Jack; your little keyboard demons have Tennessee Williams trying–or not trying–to make gentiles of us all. Although, if truth be told, for many that might be more easily accomplished than making them genteel.

    • Arrgh. Fixed it. All my life I have mixed up those words. The reason, I swear, is that there was a Baltimore Oriole first baseman in the Sixties named Jim Gentile, who pronounced his name, not gentile, and not “Gentilly” (he was Italian), but “genteel.” And I have been loused up ever since.

      It’s his fault, He couldn’t hit lefties, either.

  2. The only quibble I would leave with you is this, Jack: Generally, in my writing, I use the F-bomb pseudonym just because I think writing profanity should be done only deliberately and usefully, not casually. That’s just a personal preference that there must be ten good reasons not to adopt, but it is based on the idea of not casually leaving profane words lying around like that. I rarely use them in writing (though I am quite free with them when speaking).

    Unlike the spoken word, which is heard and then disappears except in the memory of those within hearing, written words are hanging around forever, like blasting caps, for anyone to stumble on. To me, if something profane I write must be preserved for eternity, I want it to be deliberate or meaningful, not just casually referential.

    Finally, as a former sailor, I am most offended by your suggestion that we who served in the armed forces are free and easy with profanity. Why, my Cracker Jacks would have exploded in flame and my dixie cup turned black if such a wicked word passed my lips as a submariner back during the Cold War. 🙂

  3. Similarly, in Air Force parlance, the B-52 heavy bomber (officially designated the “Stratofortress”) is more normally referred to as the BUFF. I’ve actually read columns from deadhead newspaper guys who believed that meant the “Buffalo”. But, as all airmen are aware, this is an acronym that stands for Big Ugly Flying… Fellow.

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