Today, George Carlin’s list of the seven words you can’t say on television—shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits—barely elicits a yawn. Most of us are inured to what was once quaintly called “salty language.” But in that same monologue, Carlin noted, “There are no bad words. [There are] bad thoughts, bad intentions.” And that wisdom is timeless. So on the anniversary of this historic performance, here are six times words actually shocked me, and one time they didn’t. (Warning: This essay contains salty language.)
1. In 2012, I was shocked when Sarah Silverman offered to scissor Sheldon Adelson if he’d donate $100 million to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign instead of Mitt Romney’s. Part of the shock came from Silverman’s sweet delivery, part from the unasked-for visual of Silverman grinding her crotchal region against the antediluvian fluorescent-haired billionaire’s, and part from Silverman’s helpful attempt to demo scissoring on her very small dog. The word “scissor” is, of course, not inherently dirty. In context, though, it was more gobsmackingly horrifying (and funnier) than any four-letter word could ever be. As Carlin put it, “Words are all we have really…thoughts are fluid. Woo-woo-woo. But then we assign a word to that thought—click!” Scissoring suddenly clicked. Joltingly.
2. In London recently, I was taken aback by the casual use of the word “cunt.” Cunt is the only word on Carlin’s list I never use; to me it feels misogynistic and vicious in a way the others don’t. I knew British people didn’t view “cunt” as gender-inflected and hateful the way Americans do, but actually hearing it used affectionately by mates on the street was eye-opening. (Our British intern Jas assured me that it’s still dirtier than “fuck,” so at least there’s that.) I think about latter-day Carlin explaining the difference between “pissed at” (which, he pointed out, became acceptable to say on TV) and “pissed on” (which, he said, you still can’t say on network television)—and yes, he was right: context is everything.
3. I saw The Book of Mormon early in previews, before any reviews or word of mouth (humblebrag). I knew it was made by the South Park guys, who had already portrayed a gerbil on a fantastic voyage through Richard Gere’s colon, and Saddam Hussein erotically engaged with Satan. But I was not prepared for the song “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” which juxtaposed a perky, Lion-King-esque, Africans-are-happy-and-noble opening with words and ideas that suddenly turned horrifying. What was shocking was the contrast between where we thought the song was going and where it went, as well as the underlying point that white people are all too eager to romanticize, cartoonify, and commodify a continent where there are places of abject poverty and loss, where female genital mutilation and AIDS are rampant.
4. Lewis Black of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart makes the seven words you can’t say on television sound like The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. But I don’t think he’s ever managed to shock me. He recently talked about a Holocaust survivor meeting a former Nazi guard…and choosing to forgive him. Black bellowed, “If I met a Nazi who helped kill my family, I’d take his fucking nutsack, wrap it around his neck, pull it down shove it up his ass and make it come out his pee-pee hole, then I’d tie it into the shape of a Star of David like a balloon animal!” Not shocking, and (to me) not funny. Not because the Holocaust can’t be funny (it can be) but because pure aggression without wit is tiresome. Bad words aren’t inherently amusing. Carlin knew that too.
5. I remember staring at the TV in 1999, when Samantha sobbed to her girlfriends on Sex and the City about her new lover’s undersized endowment. The words that had me gaping at the screen weren’t anatomical: they were “gherkin” and “golf pencil.” And they were shocking because the notion of women, on TV, talking frankly about a man’s organ and finding it wanting, was so new. The mere fact of depicting women’s sexual needs—not in a euphemized, porny or idealized way—felt scandalous. And hilarious and freeing.
6. In 2010, BuzzFeed published a list of current words you can’t say on TV. What with BuzzFeed being BuzzFeed, attribution and sourcing were lacking. (The piece linked to a context-free photo on Reddit of a hand holding a list of words. Uh, thanks.) In reality, the FCC has no power to ban words; what it does is police and punish words that have already been uttered. But even if BuzzFeed’s list was fake, or (more likely) was the list of a particular network’s standards and practices around language, what surprised me about the list wasn’t the dirty words. It was the racial, ethnic and LGBT slurs, e.g., camel jockey, chink, coon, dago, kike, fag, dyke and more. They still have the power to distress and offend me in a way “motherfucker” just doesn’t.
7. Three years ago, when my daughter was in sixth grade, we were walking home from Hebrew School. She said, not looking at me, “Sometimes I think the kids in my school are too sophisticated.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she said.
“Are you talking about sex, or drugs…?”
She paused. “Sex.” Another pause. “I heard some kids outside school talking.”
“Do you have any questions you’d like to ask me?”
Another pause. “What are fisting and teabagging?”
Reader, I was as dumbfounded and unnerved as you are. How do sixth graders, even in New York City, know these words? I have contemporaries who do not know these words! (You go ahead and Google if you don’t.) But again, the words themselves are not the source of shock. My grandma used to reuse teabags because she survived the Great Depression, and she would make a fist when hand-squeezing lemons for her delicious blueberry pie. The issue, again, is context. Why did I have to face the notion that my tiny precious flower had overheard words that described actions that could crush her dewy innocence?
Of the seven words you can’t say on network television, Carlin said, “I think children need to hear those words the most because as yet they don’t have the hang-ups. It’s adults who are locked into certain thought patterns.” I’m not sure I agree; children need to understand the biological meanings behind the words, but the words themselves? What’s the rush?
Still, I don’t think lasting damage was done when I told my 11-year-old daughter what fisting and teabagging were. She’d already thought grown-ups were insane (we drink alcohol voluntarily), and now there were two more things she was sure she’d never, ever want to do. Words aren’t acts; knowing things isn’t inherently dangerous; and hateful slurs are way worse than words that describe consensual sex acts. Carlin knew his shit.
Related: Lenny Bruce Everywhere
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.