February 21, 2007

much ado about scrotum

I don't get it. What's all the fuss about the word scrotum in a prize-winning picture book for fourth-graders? A perfectly harmless, if technical word for a body part that will be well known to children aged 9 -- and it's not even attached to a human being in the book, but to a dog.

After an article in the book section on Sunday, the New York Times now even comes out with an editorial on the subject:

A tempest has been brewing over a children’s book that contains a word some find naughty and unsettling. The word is scrotum. It appears only a few times in the book, “The Higher Power of Lucky,” which is recommended for grades four to six. The scrotum in question belongs to a dog, who is bitten there by a snake.

On that basis, a few queasy librarians have chosen not to order the book, even though it won the prestigious Newbery Medal. The arguments pro and con are bubbling on librarians’ message boards. The cons seem vastly outnumbered, though they have gotten a lot of attention. One likened the author, Susan Patron, to the shock-radio host Howard Stern. Another suggested that teachers reading the book aloud replace that word with “a clearing-throat noise,” a bleep in the form of an “ahem.”

All this seems like a lousy way to treat a sweet, funny book whose main character, a smart, curious 10-year-old girl named Lucky Trimble, is already wise to the power and mystery of words: “Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much. It sounded medical and secret, but also important.

I like Lucky Trimble for her word associations already. The editorial continues:

With every generation, a new cohort of children begins the journey from ignorance to knowledge. Librarians help those children get there. Some barely make it, and end up toting ignorance as baggage, a sniggering puerility about body parts and functions. Those are the ones who will be drawn to shock radio — not children like the thoughtful, dauntless Lucky Trimble and those lucky enough to have read her book.

Of course, she is not the first person to link scrotum to "something green that comes up when you have the flu". In Ulysses, James Joyce famously wrote about "The snotgreen sea. The scrotum-tightening sea." Who knows, perhaps Lucky will one day make it into the OED as well.

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