I realize, entirely, that the source of my impending complaint is my own fault:
Facing an empty afternoon, it seemed my best option was to do both of the daily crossword puzzles staring at me with x-ray vision from the back sections of their respective newspapers. One of the puzzles was the Monday New York Times puzzle; easy, certainly, but a respected and usually well-written puzzle. The other was the syndicated puzzle, tucked alongside the never-funny black and white single-pane comic, and a litany of other inanity.
I never like those no-name crossword puzzles. I find them of internally variable difficulty with inaccurate and/or unclever clue-answer pairs. I try to avoid them, opting for the erudite, sophisticated, snooty and elitist New York Times variation, but boredom inevitably got the better of me.
I regretted my choice immediately, but I am not one to quit a crossword in the middle. Yet so many of the clues were just not right for their answers: natural aptitude and instinct? Weather conditions and climate? Crazy and daft? They’re not wrong, per se, I just think they could have been better.
None of these bothered me as much as the four-word answer to the clue “pornography”: “smut.” Smut has such a negative connotation, and pornography is simply a thing that exists that some people have opinions about; it seemed a little harsh for the puzzle to be levying such harsh judgment on such a nominally innocent noun, when there are so many greater sins in the world.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines pornograph as: “an obscene writing or pictorial illustration.” (The OED in turn defines obscene as “Offensive to the senses, or to taste or refinement; disgusting, repulsive, filthy, foul, abominable, loathsome” and as “Offensive to modesty or decency; expressing or suggesting unchaste or lustful ideas; impure, indecent, lewd.” Yes, I have a bone to pick with the evolution of the English language: why is lust loathsome?)
Pornography is more specific, at least according to the OED: “Description of the life, manners, etc., of prostitutes and their patrons; hence, the expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects in literature or art.”
Pornography is, essentially, the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness, in particular (apparently) the sex industry. It seems to me that whether or not one finds that offensive to one’s taste and refinement is completely up to them.
Smut, on the other hand, when used as a noun is “a black mark or stain; a smudge,” or schmutz if Yiddish one-word definitions are to be employed. It is also a plant fungus, but that is not relevant. When used as a verb, the third definition of smut is “to make obscene” — not an overwhelmingly common usage. And reference to obscenity is not found until the fifth definition of the noun form of the word, as “indecent or obscene language,” which is hardly applicable to pornography as a whole, though there is surely an argument that the vocabulary of pornography is smut. (Perhaps an accurate crossword clue should have read “Pornographic words”.)
So is, as the questionable crossword puzzle would have us believe, pornography equivalent to smut? Is the written or visual depiction of unchaste-ness a black smudge, end of story? Perhaps for some, but obviously there are millions of people who would not think “pornography” and, in a game of free association, next think “smut.”
This is the inherent weirdness of crossword puzzles: the answer always reads as a definition for the clue, and so much can be implied about society and culture by paying attention to these nuances. By using “pornography” as the clue for the answer “smut,” we see that someone is telling us to define pornography as smut. They could easily have used an innocuous phrase like “something distasteful,” or the definition, “sooty matter,” to clue the wanted answer “smut.” Instead, though, it became a judgment call, labeling the expression of lust as something to be wiped away with zealous vigor.