What makes a word bad? I have always wondered that. Well not always, when I was a toddler I was more concerned what those stubs on the end of my hands than why “fuck” was naughty. Now that I have been told they are called “fingers” I can try to figure out why there are 7 Dirty Words.
Firstly, we must identify these so-called “dirty words” and there is no better expert of profanity than comedian, scholar and all-around good guy, the late George Carlin. In 1972 Carlin identified the “Seven Dirty Words” which were those that could not be uttered on television. It is important to note than in 1972 there was no distinction between expanded cable and basic cable. Carlin just I.D.’d the words that you couldn’t get away with saying on the 4 channels available and on AM/FM radio due to the Federal Communications Commission (F.C.C.).
Carlin’s list was as follows “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits”.
The usage of foul language on TV and radio came before the United States Supreme Court after the Pacifica Foundation played Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words” skit uncensored on its radio station. A man driving in his car complained to the F.C.C. because his son who was with him heard the lewd broadcast and was too busy with his hands at 10 and 2 to change the fucking station.
The F.C.C. (a much more liberal form than today’s ultra-conservative establishment) decided not to levy a fine against Pacifica but to wag their finger at them disapprovingly. Pacifica wouldn’t take this admonishment lying down however and appealed the decision and won. However the F.C.C. wouldn’t be told they couldn’t tell a radio station not to be naughty. In turn they appealed to the Supreme Court and were victorious. The decision was one of the first to limit free speech which is like what, the first fucking amendment?
According to the Court’s decision, certain words could be uttered but only at times when children would likely not be in the audience. The decision initiated the “Safe Harbor Act” in which broadcasters could air indecent but not obscene material between the hours of 10pm and 6am. However the F.C.C. never defined the difference between indecent and obscene and never provided broadcasters with a list of unacceptable words, phrases or images. TV and radio stations were left to self-censor themselves except when it came to the “Seven Dirty Words” which were generally taboo. Fines would be levied based on region, context and audience.
The F.C.C. mainly stayed out of the business of policing the broadcasters until massive letter writing campaigns were undertaken by organizations like the Parents and Teachers Council (PTC), The Christian Coalition and other right-wing organizations. The exposure of Janet Jackson’s boob seemed to heighten fears that a massive indecency tsunami was going to engulf the country. The fear of simple words seemed to override the fear of terrorism post Super Bowl XXXVIII. Suddenly explicit language was evidence of the coarsening of American society and the decline of civilization. Politicians who maybe had made poor decisions in attacking countries (saved for another column) had a new scapegoat, foul language.
This country attacking foul language is one that at-the-time was being run by a President who said this to then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair during the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over”. Does anyone not remember Bush calling a reporter an “A-1 asshole” or how about Dick Cheney’s remark to a reporter “Go fuck yourself”? In an interview with “Talk” magazine in September of 1999 then-presidential candidate George Dubbya Bush said that “They (presumably Democrats) think it’s like a high school election, where if you beat up your opponent enough, you can win. They’ve lost their fucking minds”. In the same article he says “I don’t care. I really don’t care. Does anyone ever say ‘Fuck you’? I don’t care if they do”. So what’s good for the goose….ahhh nevermind, this is veering dangerously into politics which is what I want to avoid in this column.
So why are these the “Seven Dirty Words”, what do they mean and why can’t we say them in front of little Billy or Sally? Let’s find the fuck out, motherfucker.
First on our list is “SHIT”, everyone is familiar with the common use of the word to describe excrement but of all the curse words shit is possibly the most versatile. Shit can be anything; it can be all sorts of shit. Like a book, shit can be a book. “Oh I forgot my shit in my locker”. The expression “my shit” or “your shit” or basically anyone’s “shit” can mean anything similar to the more acceptable “stuff”. The word “shit” can also be used in phrases such as “That’s is the shit” denoting something good, or “That’s shit” meaning something bad. It can also be used to express fear (OH SHIT!), excitement (OH SHIT!) or joy (OH SHIT!). The meaning of the word “shit” is very murky (this would be a perfect time for a shitty joke) however its origins are crystal clear.
”Shit” used to be okay to use in polite society. The Anglo-Saxon English society commonly and openly used the word to describe going #2. The Norman Conquest in 1066 forever changed the English language and the future of the word “shit”. Bodily functions such as “shitting” were changed to be more distinguished so “shit” became “defecate”. So all the sudden, in the blink of an eye, “shit” became a curse, a dirty word, foul language, an expletive, it became a piece of shit.
It is still pretty much a no-no to say “shit” on basic cable however expanded or pay cable has allowed shows run after 9pm to occasionally use the word. The F.C.C. has no jurisdiction over expanded cable although in recent years they have tried to extend their reach to include it. “Sons of Anarchy” and other shows airing on FX seem to have a quota of one “shit” per episode. “South Park” aired an episode called “It Hits The Fan” in which the word “shit” was used a whopping 162 times in under 22 minutes. “NYPD Blue” seems to be an exception to the basic cable rule, even though airing on basic cable network ABC the writers of “Blue” were allowed to show partial nudity and include the word shit sprinkled liberally into their broadcasts. Terrestrial radio has still not accepted “shit” although it slips through occasionally. Satellite radio thankfully is unedited and unregulated however irrelevant it is.
Number 2 on our list is actually number 1,(HA HA HA) it’s “PISS”. To “piss” or urinate is generally acceptable on TV nowadays but it still has a stigma. You are less likely to hear “I’m gonna go take a piss” in public than other words such as “wiz or pee”. “Piss” is actually of French decent from the word “pissier” which holds the same meaning. It was not until World War II that U.S. soldiers got a hold of the word and modified it that it became popular in the States. The Brits who share a closer relationship with the French have been using the word in expressions such as “piss off” (like “bug off” or “leave me alone”) for much longer than Americans. It is unknown if the British of French taught us this wonderful word however we use it mostly to denote urination so it’s most likely of French influence. I will leave the French and piss jokes up to you.
Ahh everyone’s favorite word is number three, say it loud, say it proud, ”FUCK”. “Fuck” is nearly impossible to trace, there are notes of words in English and German that are close but don’t carry similar meanings. There was even some poor bastard in 1278 named (and hand to God I am not making this up) named John Le Fucker. However in 1278 the word “fuck” was probably not a curse word so he probably skated through high school without a problem. A bird now known as the kestrel was, before 1600, called a “windfucker”.
The earliest obscene usage of the word seems to come in the 15th Century in a poem written in amalgamation of Latin and Modern English. The line “Non sunt in celi quia fuccant uuiuys of heli” translates to “They [the monks] are not in heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.” I imagine this was scrawled on some ancient bathroom wall. Around this time words similar to the modern day “fuck” pop up. A Swedish word “fukka” appeared and seems to mean “copulate”. Modern English touted a word “fick” which meant to “fidget”. Also a Germanic word “ficken” means to “make quick movements to and fro, flick”. In the 16th Century “ficken” was considered vulgar. The journey from innocent word to explicit one is one we may never fully comprehend for “fuck”.
Somewhere along the line this word became taboo. In England in 1857 and the U.S. in 1873 (Comstock Act) the word “fuck” was outlawed in print. Novelist D.H. Lawrence became infamous for using the word “fuck” and it’s derivatives in his novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928). It sparked outrage as it did when used in the works of James Joyce, James Jones and Henry Miller. The authors had their works banned for a time because of the word with the unknown origins. In 1971 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the word “fuck” was protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Oxford English Dictionary added the word in 1972.
So what does “fuck” mean in contemporary society? Well usually it means to have sex, to copulate, to fornicate or make love. The act of reproduction which is held sacred by every religion on Earth has a dirty word attached to it. Of course it is possible to fuck not to reproduce but how can such a thing so beautiful as taking a step towards creating life have such an ugly word attached to it. Someone fucked up!
Some scholars claim the obscene use of the word gained popularity as pornography began circulating via print in the early 1900’s but more commonly used was “skin mag”. However even early pornographic films were called “skin flicks” referring to amount of bare skin, not the act of lovemaking. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” which referenced fucking meant so as an act born of love not of sheer lust as “fuck” has become synonymous with. So like its origins as a word, its origins as a word that meant something profane is also a bit, well, fucked up.
“Fuck” like “shit” is also a very versatile word. I have used it in a variety of ways in this very column. Let’s see how it can be used. “That’s fucked up” = “That’s messed up”, “Fuck that” = “Forget that”, “Fuck Around” = “Joke Around”, “Fuck you” = “Damn you”. That’s just off the top of my head and a probably a rap song. There is a virtual cornucopia of uses for the word “fuck”. For this writer “fuck” is possibly the most valuable modifier in the English language. Whenever I am really pissed off about something it is much easier to express rage through the written word with a good “I’m fucking pissed”. Without hearing the inflection or tone of my voice it hard can be hard to know if my expression is sincere. That is where a word like “fuck” comes in. It is such a good word to use in writing because it helps multiply the impact of any feeling such as “I am really fucking glad that movie was so fucking funny”. Doesn’t that sound more sincere than “I am very glad that movie was so very funny” or is it just my profane sense of language?
Number 4 is a biggy, no one with a mother likes this word and it possibly the worst word you can use to describe a woman (even worse than “bitch”!). The word is and please don’t slap me, “CUNT”. The modern usage of the word is Germanic in origin but has may uses in other languages. It was called “queynte” in Middle English and “kunta” in Norse. “kunta” in Swedish, “kut” in Dutch and “kott” in German. All are synonymous with the vagina except for the Dutch which is more suited for the buttocks area. The Afrikaans language has a word “kont” which is the equivalent to “cunt” but is even more offensive to speakers of Afrikaans. So when in South Africa add that word to the list of things to avoid like malaria, genocide and unprotected sex.
Just how it got to mean the female genital area is unknown, however in 1230 there was a street in England called “Gropecuntlane” which was a notorious haunt for prostitutes. It’s also the most hilarious name for a street ever, in my humble opinion. The word has been considered at the very least profane since the 15th Century. It was so offensive that even its euphemism “cunny” is considered to be totally unfit for public consumption. The word “Coney” was once pronounced as “Cunny” but was actually changed because of the association. It would have given Coney Island in New York a whole different vibe.
The word is actually by and far considered less fit for print and speech than even the granddaddy curse of ‘em all “motherfucker”. Geoffrey Chaucer used the word “queynte” numerous times in “Canterbury Tales” (1390) though it probably didn’t mean what it does today. Most likely it was something similar to “quaint” although pronounced similar to “cunt”.
Though the word is considered the most offensive in the English language it somehow found its way into an Oscar Award winning motion picture. In “Silence of the Lambs” a character named “Multiple Miggs” groans at protagonist “Clarice Starling” “I can smell your cunt”. His punishment for this and another serious breach of etiquette (tossing semen at the FBI agent) was “Hannibal Lecter” coercing “Miggs” to swallow his tongue.
“Cunt” is mostly used as a replacement for the female genitalia such as the less offensive but still obscene “pussy” or “twat”. Less common uses are to describe women “You ugly cunt!” (I’d really like to apologize, but this is the topic of the column). In England the word is used more towards men than women and it is more acceptable there. Attempts to reclaim the word have been met with skepticism but the acclaimed HBO series “Deadwood” made frequent (and I mean fucking frequent) usage of the word as did “Sex in the City” and “The Sopranos”. Dude, what the fuck is wrong with HBO?
Now that we’re done with that heavy let’s move on to number 5, COCKSUCKER. To understand the roots of one who would suck cock we must first understand what a cock is. God, I never thought I would write those words. The word “cock” has many non-profane uses such as a noun as in a cock or rooster or as a verb, to cock one’s head or cock a gun (another great joke opportunity avoided). The profane use of the word “cock” can be traced back to England in the early 17th Century with a word “pillicock” which referred to a man’s penis. The first use of “cocksucker” is unknown but “cockteaser” was used regularly after 1891 (I have no idea what started this trend and can only laugh at the speculation). The Latin word “irrumator” meant someone who forced another to give him/her oral sex. Cocksucker, however doesn’t imply force would be necessary.
So cock came to mean a man’s unit and a “cocksucker” was one who suckled on said organ. It is not used commonly to describe someone who partakes in that activity but as an insult for obnoxious, annoying or cocky people. The word “cocky” whose contemporary usage is for “arrogant” originally meant “lecherous” which is defined as “given to excessive indulgence in sexual activity”. By that logic one could say “The Miami Heat are a team full of cocksuckers”. How a word goes from the literal “sucking of a cock” to being a jerk is one that similar terms “asshole” and “dickhead” have undergone.
Okay now onto the word that I once knew as the worst curse word ever, number 6 MOTHERFUCKER. This word was purportedly so bad that I actually remember the first time I heard it. I must have been around 7 or 8 and my best friend had told me all the curse words and said “This one is the worst” and proceeded to bless my ears with my aural devirginizing of “motherfucker”. Recently “motherfucker” has undergone sort of a renaissance becoming less offensive with accepted use in movies and music.
Literally “motherfucker” means to, you know what it means, an accusation of incest (I am showing great fucking restraint!). However of all the words it is the one most likely never used literally rather it used as a pejorative. I don’t even know what the use of “motherfucker” is supposed to convey but I have used it in my writing to convey displeasure with someone, i.e. “That motherfucker is wrong” or “Donald Trump seems to be a stupid motherfucker”.
Some people have gone so far as to use it as a term of endearment. The late Richard Pryor was a great proponent of the word as such. He would frequently refer to people as “motherfuckers” but mean it in a nice way (that’s a huge motherfucking oxymoron). When it was rumored that he had lost his ability to talk due to Multiple Sclerosis he replied “I’m still a talking motherfucker”. Hey even “That cat Shaft was a bad mutha”…
I think “motherfucker” has lost its place as king of the cussing mountain to “cunt”. In “Meet the Fockers” the widely popular PG-13 sequel to “Meet the Parents” the bride’s name comes into question. If she changed her last name she would be “Pamela Martha Focker” to which she replies she is fine with it even though she knows how it sounds. I doubt it would have been acceptable in a PG-13 movie if it had been “Pamela Cuh Ent” and that would have been really unfunny as proven by me right now.
The growing acceptance of “motherfucker “ has been helped along by the entertainment industry. Who doesn’t remember “John McClain’s” quote from “Die Hard”, “Yippie Cay Yay Motherfucker!”. U2 has a song called “MOFO” on their album “Pop”, Prince has a song called “Sexy Motherfucker” and Twisted Sister’s song “S.M.F” is an abbreviation for “Sick Motherfucker”. Formerly-popular comedian Dane Cook abbreviates BAMF for “Bad Ass Motherfucker”. However let me be dispel the controversy before it starts, X-Men Nightcrawler’s teleporting signature “BAMF!” is just a sound effect in print. Besides being Samuel L. Jackson’s career-defining word the words “Bad Motherfucker” appear on his character “Jules” wallet in “Pulp Fiction”. My former focus Professional Wrestling has two MF-related characters. Matt Hardy calls his fan’s “MF’ers” for Matt Followers. “Stone Cold Steve Austin” is often referred to as a “BMF” or Bad Motherfucker”.
Finally we arrive at the silliest word on this list, number 7 with a D-cup, “Tits”. Tits and their nicknames should be familiar with readers but for laughs sake let’s review a couple; boobs, boobies, jugs, rack and bosom. “Tits” can also be used as a euphemism for “drugs” by prisoners as illustrated on the HBO (again with that damned language HBO) show “OZ”. The word at one time was considered too hot for TV but with the amount of silicon on primetime I guess it was a little contradictory to show inflated tits without saying the word.
“Tits” is modern slang for the word “teat” from the early 1900’s. Those who invented the slang word for a woman’s chest would be surprised to know that the original word for “teat” was in fact “tit”. So much like with “shit” a word that originally was innocent became obscene. Although “tits” were on the list there is a bird known as the “titmouse” (bet you thought it was a mouse, don’t worry I did too). What is up with birds and these fucked up names, “windfucker” and “titmouse”? How about “peacock” and “woodpecker”? What sick fuck is naming these birds? Anyway there was also a “Battle of Tit” which didn’t take place on the Howard Stern Show but in the Sahara in 1902.
I’d really like to express the fact that I do not think that these words are proper for use around children or in public. I try not to use them however I think that language being compared to weapons of mass destruction is a bit excessive. The purpose of this column is to educate. If it weren’t for certain coincidences and events words like “shit” may be innocuous. The origin of words (etymology) is interesting if for no reason than to explain how certain words become “curse words”. Despite attempts to rid the language of these words they will prevail because at times people need to express them in writing or even aloud. In these troubled times “Oh poppycock” or “shucks” just doesn’t cut it anymore. “FUCK THIS SHIT!” seems to much more apropos So if you’re pissed, happy or whatever invoke your constitutional right to cuss up a storm. Just exercise some restraint, some moral judgment in front on minors and old ladies because we don’t need to government to legislate what should be morally and ethically obvious.
One more thing I do find it interesting that while there are at least 5 references to sex or sexuality (in one form or another) on the list there are no racial epithets. I find the words “nigger”, “spick”, “guinea”, “spook”, “chink”, “gook”, “sand nigger”, “towel head”, “kike”, “dyke”, “faggot” and the million others used to demean every race, religion and non-hetero sexual orientation on the planet much more offensive than “tits”, “piss” or even “cunt”.
For those interested in court cases involving explicit content and the material at the heart of them log on to http://www.fcc.gov/eb/Orders/2001/fcc01090.html. To learn more about etymology or find out the etymology of a word go to http://www.etymology.com.
Loved this column, hated it, need a place to send death threats? Feel free to leave a comment on this column and tell me to go “fuccant” myself.