The August 15, 2017 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a Lingua Franca piece by Ben Yagoda titled “Of Cans and Cabooses” that begins and ends with the recent court case over singer Taylor Swift’s groping assault but also circles around to John Updike’s famous and frequently anthologized short story, “A&P.”
“The sensitivity and sometimes embarrassment over naming this body part goes way back. In 1960, John Updike submitted to the then-prudish The New Yorker a short story called “A&P,” which contained the line: “She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can.” His editor, William Maxwell, suggested changing can to butt, to which Updike replied:
You must be kidding about “butt.” It’s really just as crude as “can.” I think the real answer is “tail” — but every time I sit down to go over the proof of A&P, I choke up with the silly sacrifice of “can.”
“A compromise was reached in which the young lady was described as having a ‘sweet broad backside.’ Updike restored can when he published ‘A&P’ in a short-story collection.
“Updike’s comment about butt is interesting. I feel that over the past half-century-plus, the word has gotten less crude. I use it in mixed company, and in the classroom on the rare occasions that the topic comes up. But it’s still too informal for The New York Times,” Yagoda writes.