Dirty Words

Raised as I was under the influence of George Carlin records, I have a more-than-passing familiarity with the Seven Words You Can't Say on Television.  In fact, my dad and I have both been known to run through them (in order, of course) during moments of duress.  There's something deeply satisfying and cathartic about rolling the consonants of "shit piss fuck cunt cocksucker motherfucker and tits" off your tongue--something that makes a potential road rage moment into something a little easier to bear.

Nonetheless, it had always been my belief that Carlin's list was only partially accurate.  As he himself noted, motherfucker is redundant when fuck is already on the list, and a few other words such as fart, turd, and twat should also have been included.  He was also right that "tits doesn't even belong on the list," which any British birder could have told him.  (Surely there's a BBC program in which David Attenborough marvels at the lifestyles of tits.)  Still, I was surprised to discover, in a recent post over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, that the Seven Words were nearly made official in U.S. law.

Back in 2003, in the wake of Bono's on-the-air comment that winning a Golden Globe award was "fucking brilliant," at least one member of the United States Congress saw a need--a need to ensure that no awards show audience, no matter how small, would ever have to hear a word used by nearly every member of the public to describe an activity performed by nearly every member of the public.  Representative Doug Ose proposed something called the Clean Airways Act, which in its text listed the Heavy Seven in six-sevenths of their original glory, prompting Sullivan to claim the bill "[m]akes Cartman look demure."

In a new piece for The New Republic, Steven Pinker analyzes the practice of cursing more generally than Ose, but also brings up Ose's brainchild (which did not, alas, pass, leaving Carlin's list unenshrined in American law) and notes that "the Clean Airwaves Act would have forbade from broadcast

the words "shit", "piss", "fuck", "cunt", "asshole", and the phrases "cock sucker", "mother fucker", and "ass hole", compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms)."

Carlin's list was recorded on his 1972 Class Clown album.  When it won a Grammy award, Carlin was at a show that was being recorded for his follow-up album, Occupation: Foole, and his pleased exclamation of "Shit!  I won the Grammy, man!" suggests that awards-related profanity is more common than even Ose believed.  Still, between 1972 and 2003, Carlin had been proved right: tits was removed from the list of the seven most dangerous words, replaced by asshole.

Why?  Good question.  The logic of cursing is hard to follow.  Perhaps the combination of excretion and sexual utility makes asshole a more potent word than tits.  Certainly sex and scatology compete with blasphemy for the title of Dirtiest Thing to Mention in most languages, but there are tongues that have no native swear words (Japanese and a number of native American languages are more-or-less cussing-free) and others whose rude words are downright nonsensical, including German (which uses "pig-dog" as a term of abuse) and Finnish (which, according to Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, adopted the phrase "in the restaurant" for cursing purposes; it sounds a bit more satisfying in the original, luckily:  ravintolossa.)

Personally, my swearing tends toward the Big Three of Carlin's list, sort of the Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman triumvirate of profanity's Justice League: shit, piss, and fuck.  The rest are like Green Lantern or Aquaman: okay in their place, I suppose, but not primal enough for me to ignore the fact that they're a bit silly.  I almost never use cunt, and I probably use cocksucker even less than that.  Once in a while, motherfucker will escape my lips, but not nearly as often as a garden-variety fuck.  As for Carlin's additions, fart has become almost harmless, turd has been enshrined in our political dialogue already (thanks to Dubya's nickname for Karl Rove), and twat is just too weird to encounter very often.   

I'll agreed with Ose in one area, though: asshole is a much better curse word than tits, which somehow doesn't satisfy the need for a solid consonant-based impact when cussing--it sounds too crisp and tinny.  (Indeed it was the one exception to Monty Python's principle that "all the naughty words sound woody.")  Of course, to Ose, that meant that asshole must be done away with, while to me, his distaste simply proves how effective the word is in its proper context.

And context is everything, really.  One of Carlin's most valid maxims, to my mind, is this: "There's no such thing as a bad word.  You got bad thoughts... bad intentions... and words."  Human beings need words for many occasions, including getting cut off in heavy traffic and hitting thumbs with hammers.  On such occasion, having a good word to express one's pain and frustration allows one to release emotion, rather than leave it festering within.  Without the catharsis of cursing, I believe, we'd be repressed to an unhealthy degree.  I'll grant you that in many situations such language would certainly be unwelcome at best and offensive at worst, but in the proper place, they're not only not "bad words," but become actively good ones.

If you doubt me, consider how often a perfectly good word, used in the wrong place, can suddenly turn bad.  And yes, I'm talking about non-profane words suddenly becoming unwelcome or even offensive.  Look at that Pinker quote again:

would have forbade from broadcast

It "would have forbade"?  A past-tense form used where a participle form is needed?  That's like saying "I have ran home before." or "I've never was in love before."  It's grotesque!

Steven, you have to use forbidden there--you fucking have to!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 13, 2007 9:37 PM.

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