All Worked Up about Profanity


When I was eight years old, my younger brother Scott and I walked home from school every day. Timmy, the little kid across the street, rode the school bus, always getting home before we did. This allowed Timmy the chance to let his dog, an enormous, mean-tempered German Shepherd, out of his house as soon as he saw us coming up the street. For my brother and me, what had been a pleasant stroll home inevitably became a Death-defying Sprint For Life as we raced for the safety of our front door. Timmy enjoyed watching us in our primal struggle for survival and the dog always got a good cardiovascular workout, but for Scott and me, it wasn’t so much fun.

One spring day, I got tired of staying just one step ahead of the Slavering Jaws of Doom. While Scott diverted the dog’s attention by climbing a tree, I ran for Timmy’s house to have a confrontation. I admit I wasn’t usually the boldest kid on the block, but I’d finally had enough. I pounded on his front door and yelled, “Timmy, you little s**-of-a-*****! You better keep that G**-d***** dog on a leash or I’m gonna beat the s*** out of him with a f****** baseball bat!”

Now, let’s be honest. When the blood’s pounding and the adrenaline’s coursing through your veins, you don’t censor your words. You let fly with the big guns. Even when you’re eight years old. I didn’t call Timmy a “son-of-a-gun.” I didn’t say “gosh-darned” or “flipping.” You know exactly what I said.

So did Timmy’s mom. She was standing on the other side of the front door, and she heard every word of my little tirade. And when my dad got home from work, she laid into him like Patton hitting the Germans.

My dad listened to Timmy’s mom for about ten minutes while I spied on them from around the corner. The words “vulgar” and “obscene” came up several times, and she said Dad should “punish that foul-mouthed little brat” at least twice.

After Timmy’s mom finally came up for air, Dad promised he’d have a word with me, but he also had one thing to add. With a voice so calm it could have delivered the “time and temperature” recordings, my dad said, “You better keep that God-damned dog on a leash or my son’s going to beat the shit out of him with a fucking baseball bat!”

When comedian Richard Pryor died on December 11, the words “brilliant,” “ground-breaking,” and “genius” came up a lot. So did “vulgar,” “obscene,” and “foul-mouthed.” Mr. Pryor did have a way with profanity. I watched one tribute on TV which showed a clip from one of his concert films, and so much of his dialogue was bleeped out it sounded like a test pattern.

I never saw much point to the practice of censoring out foul language. I mean, why bother trying to cover up that stuff? If your kids have ever spent any time outside with their friends, or even if you’ve got premium cable, your kids have probably picked up all they need to know to fill in the blanks. Or the bleeps, as the case may be.

Now, let’s take another trip in my own personal Way-Back Machine. I’m thirteen, now. Scott and I are huddled together in the back of the van on a family trip. We’re listening to a portable radio with a tape deck, to a cassette of “The Greatest Hits of George Carlin.” Specifically, We’re busting our respective guts trying not to laugh too loudly at Carlin’s legendary ‘seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine.

You know the ones. You can get away with ‘screw, “balls, “prick, “pussy, and even “bitch” if you happen to be watching the Westminster Dog Show. However, there are a heavy seven that will “curve your spine, grow hair in the palms of your hands, and keep the country from winning the war, according to Carlin.

These words are, ‘shit, “fuck, “piss, “cunt, cock-sucker, “mother-fucker” and “tits.”

Part of what makes Carlin’s monologue so legendary is that in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 736 (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could legally prohibit “obscene” language from being broadcast on the public airwaves. The case was a major blow against freedom of speech in the U.S. It seems you can’t say the seven words on the radio, either. It seems a man in New York became outraged that his son heard the monologue broadcast on the radio. The broadcast was part of an on-air discussion about, of all things, irrational limitations on speech.

Ironically, that’s part of Carlin’s original point, and it’s another reason the monologue is so brilliant. Carlin spends a great deal of time discussing the fact that the “Heavy Seven” are banned from the public airwaves for no apparent reason. There’s no logic to explain why ‘shit” is banned while “poop, “doo-doo” and “crap” are okay.

Tits shouldn’t even belong on the list, says Carlin. It sounds like a snack”.I’m talking about new Nabisco Tits! Cheese Tits, Sesame Tits, Corn Tits, Tater Tits”bet you can’t eat just one!”

Of course, “Fuck” gets special attention. That’s the Big Gun. The F-Bomb. The one that gets your mouth washed out with soap. It can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, an expletive, and a dozen other grammatical terms I can’t begin to list.

It can even be used to describe a form of sex. When John says to Penelope, “Come, dearest, let us engage in physical intercourse, it has a helluva lot different meaning than, “Bend over, Penny, so I can fuck your brains out!”

In past writings, I’ve discussed the Holy Terrors War On Whoopie, also known as a war on everything fun about sex. let’s face it. “Whoopie” is the PG-13 word I use to describe the “War on Fucking.” “Having sex, “making love, “carnal knowledge, “doing it, and “boinking” are clinical. They’re terms that dance around the issue. “let’s fuck” says, “Woo-hoo! We’re going for a ride tonight!”

These days, the Powers That Be, at the behest of the Holy Terrors, are threatening to crack down on profanity even more so than in recent years. Even premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime are feeling the heat to “clean up their acts.”

For some reason, an important part of the Holy Terror way of thinking is, “out of sight, out of mind.” If they somehow manage to ban all “offensive” or subversive” utterances, images, and influences, they seem to believe they can control offensive thoughts, as well. George Orwell called this concept, Newspeak” in his legendary novel, “1984.” By tightly controlling the public vocabulary, they hope to control even the concepts behind the vocabulary. If we can’t say a naughty word, we end up losing the power to even think about it. The “War On Fucking” is therefore about more than just protecting delicate ears and sensibilities. It’s about freedom, especially of expression.

In a way, it’s fitting that any real discussions about profanity and its meaning come from stand-up comics like Carlin, Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Mort Sahl, and of course Lenny Bruce. To be successful, a comic has to challenge our traditional ways of thinking. He or she has to look at things from different angles and point out their humorous aspects.

On the other hand, since comedians are on the fringe of society, the humor of their points of view prevent us from taking those points of view seriously. Since we treat profanity as a joke, we don’t have any serious mainstream discussions about the subject. To this day, the most widely-known essay on profanity is, you guessed it, George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.”

Call me crazy, but in my opinion the idea that we can only have discussions about profanity through comedians is — well — it’s a fucking joke.

J.T. Benjamin
February 2006

“All Worked Up” © 2006 J.T. Benjamin. All rights reserved.

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