I should probably begin by stating that I no more believe in “bad words” than I do “dangerous weapons”. There are good and bad people and they will avail themselves of fitting or inappropriate tools.
“But, Genial Gene,” I hear many bleat, “some words are just nasty!”
Now now, I realize that in the real world some people have a real visceral reaction to certain sequences of phonemes. I get it, and I try to be careful.
George Carlin tried codifying the constraint in 1972 (though I suspect his list adhered more to the demands of his bit than to etymological rigor) with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (In Dog Latin: feci copulat ure cunnum fellatrix oedipus mammaria — or, in the original Klingon: shit fuck piss cunt cocksucker motherfucker tits).
Carlin’s list didn’t last long. In the late seventies Debbie Reynolds performed a sketch on her television variety special in which she lampooned Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Dolly Parton, referring to them as “Grits and Fritz and Tits.” Somewhat later, in the early eighties, I was startled to realize how many tough cops and crusading ADAs were routinely “pissed off.” After 10 pm, of course. Clearly the FCC had backed off on a couple of their proscriptions. Still, the rest of the list seemed to remain intact for the rest of the 20th Century.
Today, on many a late night cable drama you’ll hear tough cops and cynical suspects calling each other on their “bullshit excuses” or “bullshit charges.” Four remain, and seemingly firm, in spite of Charles Rocket’s not believing he had been “fucking shot” at the end of Saturday Night Live’s Dallas parody. But that was only in the Eastern and Central Time Zones. Tape delay permitted the offending utterance to be expunged elsewhere.
Culture evolves, often slowly and painfully, sometimes abruptly. Three words have dropped off Carlin’s list, but a couple of others might have since been added. This brings me to what I call “The FCN Rule.” This stipulates that a courteous person will avoid saying (at least) fuck or cunt or nigger in front of strangers unless those strangers have bought tickets to hear his act. There are a lot of other things it is wise to avoid saying in public, but those three are the cream. Conceding the rationale of the list, “Nigger” certainly belongs there, as it‘s history is particularly violent and ugly. It is rich and potent, meaning both subordinate and pariah. It‘s almost too perfect a pejorative, both in its origins, and in the physiognomic effect it has on the speaker. Feel the muscles of your face as you pronounce the word. It begins with a sneer, and it ends with a growl. We couldn‘t come up with a better way to express disdain and contempt and threat all in one breath if we tried to build one from the ground up. (“Faggot” is likely also on the list by now, even though I suspect that many Brits will still bum fags from their mates.)
The whole notion of profanity puzzles me. What puzzles me even more is the notion of insulting someone by calling him a cunt, a dick, an asshole, or a cocksucker. Sure, I get that being equated to a body part is limiting, dehumanizing, and insulting. But those particular parts, and that particular act, are all GOOD things. Granted, not all of us are into anal sex, but the asshole is still for most of the rest of us a regular source of comfort and relief. A good thing. Not that I’m about to start hurling insults, I’m just not the sort myself to be getting all worked up over what seems to me to be a trivial slight or a juvenile jest.
Such circumspection is not an indictment of the words themselves, just taking credit for a little bit of social grace. I will endorse circumspection as long as I’m obliged to live in the real world, but I will never surrender any words unconditionally. As a writer (strictly amateur) and an actor (much more accomplished amateur) I consider the English language to be both my tool kit and my toy box. It is imprudent to surrender useful tools, and it’s no fun giving up your toys.
Still, to avoid Cletus bitch-slapping me for inadvertently insulting his mom, I’ll try to watch the lip. Just be careful ya don’t ask me any direct questions…