Of course, those of us who work with words are delighted when we can invigorate the language with a new phrase, or find an athlete who has a new way of saying something old and tired.
I am grateful still to the old Mets manager, Wes Westrum, who remarked after a close game, “Boy, that certainly was a cliff-dweller!” I believe we permitted that quote to remain, as we did that from the Buffalo Bills football coach who remarked, “We knocked the sails out of his wind.”
And Joe Gardi, a Jets assistant coach, is in my pantheon of wordsmiths, because he told me, when discussing the team’s problems, “We’ve got to nip it in the butt.” Perhaps so, but not in The Times.
Which brings me back to the tearful punter, Chuck Ramsey.
After he told me that head coach Walt Michaels had used the word “fart,” I called the paper. Remember, I was in Seattle, and it was close to midnight in New York. I told them what I had. They told me they’d call me back, that it needed a command decision. The response was fairly quick—“You can’t use the word, but you can paraphrase it.” So I dutifully quoted Ramsey as saying that Michaels had yelled, “I can spit farther than you can punt.”
However, one of the tabloids in the city actually used the real quote. And then the Long Island paper Newsday, which had a media columnist then, subsequently wrote a big story about how every paper in the city had used that f-word except The Times, which—for shame—altered the quote.
That embarrassed the powers at my paper, and an edict came down from on high: Never again is a quote to be altered for any reason. You can use brackets to show that a word has been changed, but not actually change a quote directly. I mentioned that edict to Ramsey later that week.
Some years later, I was at a Jets exhibition game in Nashville. Ramsey had retired, but I happened to spot him at the players’ entrance, where he was visiting old friends.
“Hey, Jerry,” he called. “Over here. I want you to meet someone.” He introduced me to a friend.
“This is the guy,” he said to his friend, as he held my hand, “who made me famous in The New York Times. They have a rule about me there!”
Good for Chuck, I thought. Glad he could laugh about that odious moment. Still, some part of me wishes I could have made history at the paper by getting the f-word past our editors.
Perhaps I might have if, once again, an editor hadn’t cautioned me. I was leaving the office to cover a New York Rangers hockey game when my kindly editor told me: “Don’t use the word ‘puck.’ ” And why not? Because the linotype operators were engaged in union negotiations, and to flex their muscles, some operators might have a puckish sense of humor and give the rubber disk a new first letter.
So I wrote a thousand words about a hockey game without using the word “puck.” It was a hard rubber disk, a black sphere, but never a “puck.”
Do I have any other regrets for words not written? Well, maybe it would have been fun to have slipped one or two in when I was a young Times reporter on the high-school sports beat. I wrote about the public schools in New York City, of course, but also wrote about the Catholic Schools, though was sternly warned before my first column: In The New York Times, St. John’s never “whips” St. Cecilia’s. And woe to the writer who dares to say that St. Cecilia’s “downs” St. John’s.
I thought about that simpler time recently when I read a longform piece in the paper about a transgender martial-arts fighter. Wonder whether you could say she “topped” her opponent? Or even, in the confusion of a martial-arts brawl, had her down for the count?