Standing by his words
OFF-COLOR. Blue. Naughty. Nasty. Indecent.
Whatever you call them, George Carlin’s seven dirty words first hit the airwaves in 1973. Janet Jackson was 7.
The 12-minute monologue titled “Filthy Words” that would drive the decency debate for years was taken from “Occupation: Foole,” one of Carlin’s comedy albums. Ultimately, the Supreme Court would hear the routine that New York-based WBAI-FM had aired.
Now, 25 years after the court ruled that broadcasting offensive words during certain hours could be deemed indecent -- including those in the Carlin routine -- we still can’t utter most of them on-air or include them in a newspaper article. But we can see some of the things they describe in prime time. If the words have faded into memory, www.GeorgeCarlin.com has the original list, plus 2,443 more contributed by fans and friends.
Carlin, 67, is still using words as “spices” and “intensifiers.”
He blames it on his mother. She fed his love of language. He blames it on hippies and the Summer of Love. They freed him. He blames it on being Irish. They like to gab. But, he says, the seven are only words.
So a warning: This Q&A; contains opinions that might be regarded as offensive.
What triggered the seven words routine?
I wanted to point out that on television -- and on radio, by inference -- but television, there were some words you could never say. It’s not the seven words you can’t say on television, it’s the seven words, seven words, you can never say. And the reason for that distinction was that there were some words that were considered dirty sometimes and not other times. You could prick your finger, but you couldn’t finger your .... And I thought and thought about it and the only ones I could think of at the time -- they were all true and they’re still pretty much true, there’s very little change [were the seven]. .... So that became the list.
Why the fascination with words?
It’s partly genetic, and it’s partly reinforced by my mother. She would point to things she was reading and tell me, “Look how that cuts through there, look at that.” I’d ask her a word, she’d say get the dictionary. Then we’d discuss the word. It was a constant appreciation of language between the two of us.
And the cursing?
I quit school in ninth grade. So everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned by watching things and listening and reading. Language came easy.... At any rate, part of my routines were about language. I was lucky enough to get away from commercial television and commercial, standard, middle-class nightclubs in the late ‘60s and become my own person thanks to the cultural revolution -- the so-called hippie movement, the free speech movement, peace love, all that stuff.... That freed me to be who I really was, which is this person who doesn’t like restrictions. So I knew I could curse in my act because I was doing concerts, there’s no commercial interference ....I could curse, not for the sake of cursing but for the sake of using language as what it is. Using these words as spices. As tools in the language to intensify.
We’ve had a renewal of the decency debate. How has the discussion changed since 1973?
In the framework of radio and television, newspapers, all advertising media, all places where business is done -- that’s the difference between movies, plays, books and concerts on one hand and radio, television newspapers and magazines on the other -- they’re selling stuff and they’re afraid of offending a potential customer.
What are the consequences of being politically correct, of sanitizing society? Instead of saying Janet Jackson’s boob, saying wardrobe malfunction?
Well, those are just plain euphemisms. We’ve always been euphemistic. Euphemism is a retreat from reality. It’s a way of trying to make the ugly seem acceptable. We’ve created a very ugly culture here. We’ve created a very ugly America.
Who is driving the decency debate?
Aside from the more fanatical members of the public, the public could care less. They’d really rather have a job and some health care, I mean, for the most part. People are interested in what government should be doing, which is providing for the people, instead of [analyzing] these frivolous things.... [The government is] using the FCC, an appointed body in the executive branch, to stir the waters on decency in America.
Should we have regulations -- hours where language is restricted because children might be watching?
What is wrong with children hearing words? I do not understand that argument they give at all: to protect children. Children are overprotected as it is. Words cannot hurt them. Words do not morally corrupt. What corrupts is actions, behaviors. Parental example. Community example. To show children that if we don’t like it, we silence it is the wrong message.
Where did you draw the line with your daughter?
I told Kelly anything she wanted to know and we cursed around her. I did tell her this: “If you go to a birthday party you don’t say f---, OK. You don’t say, “Give me a piece of f------ cake.” Because the other parent probably doesn’t like that. You are not to use these words where other people have rules. You don’t go there to break their rules. But it’s OK to use those words. They are not going to hurt you. They’re never going to hurt you morally or any other way.”
What gets overlooked in the indecency debate?
First of all, when I was a little boy I was told to look up to sailors and soldiers, soldiers and sailors. Look up to policemen and firemen and look up to athletes. And then I found out later in life how they spoke.... They used the language of the people, the vulgar tongue. Which is the way we all speak. When they are called for, you use [curse words]. They are intensifiers. They improve communication. They get in the way only when people have these rigid notions about them. But they are very useful words when they are used to intensify speech.
Where do you think the power of words comes from?
In terms of these words, their ability to hurt and injure is only a part of a person’s intention to hurt or injure, which can happen with or without these words. The power of words and language is evident, you know, in the way great writers use the language. There are ways to use the language to sing, to have very high-flown thoughts and [to express] very important things that are almost indescribable. I mean, that’s what poetry is.
Contact Erin Ailworth at email@example.com.