originally published June 22, 2012
As a purveyor of bacon-related humor and often tasteless gags, I find it somewhat unethical to write about somebody else’s comedy. But while the heart of today’s topic is truly a piece of modern fundamental comedy gospel, there’s much more to examine than the seven words which make up its frame.
Piss. Shit. Fuck. Cunt. Cocksucker. Motherfucker. Tits.
It almost reads like poetry, doesn’t it?
In 1966, Lenny Bruce proclaimed that he had been arrested for saying nine words as part of his act – the above seven, plus ‘ass’ and ‘balls’. Six years later, an album called Class Clown introduced the world to a much hairier, much less clean-cut version of comedian George Carlin. On that album he expressed his bafflement at the stigma surrounding the Dirty Seven, or the “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”, as he puts it. I won’t parrot any of the bit, but if you aren’t familiar with it, you owe yourself ten and a half minutes of spit-take-tacular joy by watching this 1978 performance of the routine.
With this bit, Carlin began cementing his reputation as a practical linguist. Some of his finest routines examined the lunacy of language and colloquial banter. This one, however, got him arrested.
After performing the bit at Summerfest in Milwaukee, Carlin was arrested for disturbing the peace and violating obscenity laws. The charges were dismissed by a judge who fortunately remembered the First Amendment existed. Carlin occasionally referred to the words as the ‘Milwaukee Seven’ after that.
The Dirty Seven weren’t done filthying up the fragile fibers of American decency, however. His next album, Operation: Foole, included a similar routine, “Filthy Words”, in which Carlin once again discusses the Dirty Seven, along with a deeper exploration into the hushed-tones lexicon that some people refused to acknowledge. On October 30, 1973, listener-supported WBAI-FM in New York broadcast “Filthy Words” uncensored. John Douglas, who was active with Morality In Media, heard the broadcast (apparently with his 15-year-old son in the car), and was appalled.
Morality In Media is one of those tedious “watchdog” groups (funded by the Department of Justice, hooray!) who claims to protect the American public from the evils of the entertainment world. And certainly nothing could be more evil than a man discussing the most shunned words in our collective vocabulary (words I’m certain John Douglas’s 15-year-old knew already) in a frank, honest, and funny way. No doubt the WBAI-FM broadcast took many lives that day.
Douglas filed a complaint with the FCC, which placed Pacifica, the network behind the station, on notice, stating that any further complaints could lead to specific sanctions. The station appealed, and the verdict was overturned. Then the FCC got pissed.
The case landed at the feet of the US Supreme Court, who ultimately decided it was okay for radio stations to air dirty words (shy of actual obscenity) between 10PM and 6AM. Carlin’s comedic observations about these words actually led to a greater legal acceptance of them. There really is power in comedy, or so I keep telling myself.
So who are the real stars of this show, and how exempt from television are they now, 40 years later? Let’s have a look.
Shit comes from Old English, probably derived from scite (dung), scitte (diarrhea), and scitan (to defecate). Some Germanic tribes used a form of the word as well, so it seems that shit was simply destined to be shit. The first network show to utter the word was Chicago Hope in 1999, followed closely by its mirror show on NBC, ER, when Dr. Mark Greene is in the final stages of his brain tumor. Comedy Central, which still bleeps any utterance of profanity by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, allowed the show South Park to air an uncensored 2001 episode called “It Hits The Fan”, in which ‘shit’ is uttered 162 times. You still won’t hear this on The Big Bang Theory, but people appear to be cooler with shit than they used to be.
Piss is practical. You can soak animal skins in it to remove the fibers and prepare them to be made into leather. You can use it to cure jellyfish stings (actually, that’s a myth; Friends was wrong). It can be used for gunpowder, or as a base material for the production of hydrogen to power your brand new blimp. ‘Piss’, which is a delightful piece of onomatopoeia, was the common, accepted word for the liquid until ‘urine’ was introduced in the 14th century as a medical term. The word has become much more socially acceptable; you’ll probably hear it more often as part of ‘pissed off’ on television, but even on its own, it won’t draw any FCC fines anymore.
It’s hard to say exactly where Fuck comes from. The best explanations I can find are the old German word ficken (to have sex), the Norwegian fukka (to have sex), or the Swedish fokka or Dutch fokken, both of which mean to have sex and to strike. This tells me that both the Swedish and Dutch folk of yesteryear were into some pretty kinky stuff. There are rumors that Fuck is an acronym (For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge; Fornicating Under Consent of King), but those are unsubstantiated. You’ll find the word used in the 1475 poem “Flen Flyys” – anything before that is conjecture. Fuck is still the big one. You won’t hear it on network TV, and it will continue to be the poster-boy for dirty words.
If Fuck is the poster-boy, Cunt is the devious mistress behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Most people I know toss out ‘fuck’ in everyday speech (I hang with a dangerous and unruly crowd), but Cunt is still reserved for those special occasions when no other word will deliver a sufficient punch. If Fuck is strong whiskey, then Cunt is moonshine. Her origins are mysterious, but it looks like we can blame the Germans again. They seemed to have cornered the middle-ages market on dirty words. As for its modern broadcast usage, you’ll hear a fuck-ton of Fuck before you ever hear Cunt on television.
Cocksucker on Wikipedia redirects to ‘Fellatio’, so I’ll have to look elsewhere for its etymology. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it was first used in the 1890s to refer to someone who performs the act of blowjobbery, then in the 1920s as an insult. The term ‘cock’ as a substitute for ‘penis’ dates back to the 1610s, but it took nearly 300 years for someone to stick ‘sucker’ on the end. This is another one you won’t hear on the airwaves, possibly because the word is so literal.
In the third episode of Boardwalk Empire (which takes place at the start of the 1920s), Steve Buscemi’s character expresses confusion when Chalky White utters the word ‘Motherfucker’. Indeed, the word isn’t found anywhere in published history prior to 1928. Its first appearance in popular music was almost heard in Isaac Hayes’ “Theme From Shaft”, but the backing singers extol him to shut his mouth before he can get the juicy syllables out. Someone once asked Carlin to remove this word from the list, as the only thing offensive about it is the word ‘fuck’. He thought about it, but decided that its rhythm was essential to the flow of the routine.
Who the hell is asking George Carlin to alter his material, anyway?
Tits is another word that has moved down the charts. In 1928 the word first appeared (I wonder if it showed up in the same place as Motherfucker’s debut…) as a bastardization of the word ‘teat’, which dates back to the twelfth century. It’s not going to drop any jaws on TV at this point, but unless the script can truly justify it, network censors will probably request a substitute.
Carlin expanded the list to more than 200 words, which he read from a lengthy scroll during his 1983 Carnegie Hall special. Yes, of course I’ll link to it. Four decades on, most of his original seven still won’t show up on network TV, but network TV itself has suffered a tremendous loss in prestige since then. Some of the most innovative television in the last fifteen years has come through cable, where any of the Seven are up for grabs.
For those of us, like George, who refuse to be offended by non-slanderous, non-harmful verbiage, that’s a wonderful motherfucking thing.