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A mind-reading mystery

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  September 18, 2006 04:05 PM

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A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled onto a story (archived, fee only) in the MetroWest Daily News about a Marlborough man who'd been livening up the evening commute with his one-man anti-Bush protest. John de Bairos, the report said, was demonstrating several times a week at a busy intersection, sometimes with a placard that read "Impeach the lying bastard."

A parent had objected to the public use of bastard, the writer said, but the police chief had declared the sign legal. Then came a bit of language commentary:

"As most people know, dictionary.com defines bastard as "a person born of unmarried parents . . . an illegitimate child.
"It's also a term used in the printing business. A bastard width, for example, is a column width not consistent with the standard one-column or two-column measures.
"But we all know that's not what de Bairos is implying. He's suggesting the insulting meaning that we can't print in this newspaper."

He is? And we "all know" this secret meaning? It was news to me -- and to everyone I've asked since -- that bastard was a euphemism for some ruder, more vulgar insult. I e-mailed the writer, asking what word she had in mind – she must think it's pretty obvious, since she assumes it's what de Bairos really meant -- but so far she hasn't replied.

Eventually, I did come up with a guess, but I'm not going to throw a red herring into this kettle of fishiness till I have more information. So tell me: When you see the word bastard, do you think some other, nastier word is intended? (And if so, what is it?) Or is bastard simply bastard, and neither better nor worse than I've always believed?

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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