Jeff Goldstein evidently overlooked the part of my Sarah Palin post that was about language, even though I put it in bold. Let me restate it simply.
What if Letterman knew young 14-year-old Willow was the girl at the game? Should that have caused him to change the phrasing of his joke?
Remember, Letterman said:
One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game, during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez.
Saying “her daughter,” it is clear, was ambiguous. Goldstein is sure he meant Bristol. His commenter Pablo, among many others, thinks he meant Willow. I’m not sure which he meant.
But what if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Pablo & Co. are right? That Letterman knew it was Willow? Should he have changed the phrasing??
Pretend that, before Letterman tells the joke, someone comes up to him and whispers:
You know, Dave, the daughter Palin had at the game was Willow. She’s 14 years old. Why don’t you change the phrase “her daughter” to “her daughter Bristol” — so that Willow doesn’t inadvertently get hurt?
a) Refuse to change the language — after all, he knows what his intent is. If some listeners don’t get it, to hell with them. If many believe that a 14-year-old girl has been made the butt of a sex joke, that’s on them.
b) Add one word to the joke (“Bristol”) to make it clear it’s not about a 14-year-old — because, after all, a speaker should take account of how listeners, even those attempting to interpret his language according to his intent, might reasonably misinterpret his language.
Slightly modified version of the question: what if Dave, in his professional comedy opinion, thinks that adding the word “Bristol” isn’t quite as funny? Should he leave out the word and go with the slightly funnier joke, even though he knows that many listeners trying to divine his intent will conclude that he is making a sex joke about a 14-year-old?