God, Faith, and Some Other Dirty Words

Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin and banned words

Comedian George Carlin’s humor was a delightful bashing of our human silliness, especially our penchant for euphemisms, e.g., bathroom tissue instead of toilet paper; landfill in place of dump; and sanitary engineer in place of garbageman. Carlin died Sunday at the age of 71. He had a 30-year history of heart ailments and a career almost double that in stand-up comedy. The New York Times noted that Carlin was a master of words that most people could not or would not speak.

It was Carlin, I believe, who first noted that we park on driveways and drive on parkways, and he marveled and got lots of mileage out of oxymorons such as “military intelligence” and “jumbo shrimp.” But in the end, he’ll be forever remembered as the broadcaster of the seven dirty words banned on television.

Despite his profane reputation, Carlin’s clever arguments often made sense. There are no dirty words, he claimed: dirty thoughts, dirty intentions, dirty people, yes; but words simply cannot be dirty, he argued. His attitude was a bit like that of Jesus reminding us that what comes out of persons corrupts not what goes into them.

I think Carlin probably read the second-century Roman dramatist Terence, who is credited with saying, “nothing human is alien to me.” I say probably, just as I’d say former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle probably copied without attribution one-liners from Carlin’s 1997 book, Brain Droppings, an obscene journalistic deception that eventually cost the columnist his job.

Off course, Carlin’s reputation—call it notoriety, if you will—came from his irreverence, especially in cataloging the seven words that cannot be spoken on television or radio. His doing so led to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling (by a 5-4 vote) in favor of FCC regulation of language in broadcasting and made Carlin an iconoclastic culture superhero.

Here are Latinized versions of Carlin’s seven dirty words: defecation, urination, copulation, pudenda, fellatio, maternal incest, and mammary glands.

My list admittedly lacks the shock and punch of Carlin’s Anglo-Saxon—and for the most part single syllable—equivalents, but no court or broadcast censor will object to the terms on my list; in fact, there’s a good chance many station managers wouldn’t understand several words on my list so I prefer my list as thought-provoking and educational rather than shocking. Even Alex Trebek (a philosophy major in college, by the way) has been known to utter words from my list.

In case you haven’t picked up on it, I have read several of Carlin’s books of humor (Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help, 1984; Brain Droppings, 1997; Napalm and Silly Putty, 2001; When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? 2004; and Three Times Carlin: An Orgy of George, 2006) and found beneath the blatant obscenities a piercing mind and an admirable and cogent social analyst.

What I find somewhat bewildering is Carlin’s castigating of religion. Apparently Carlin (in spite of his Roman Catholic upbringing; or, perhaps, because of it) would have preferred we not use words such as God, Christ, faith, hope, charity, sin or forgiveness in any serious context (yes, that’s seven words). He seemingly had no objection to their use in a profane context.

The late Harvard personality theorist Gordon W. Allport used to note that our value-language has been turned topsy by the Freudian revolution. In Freud’s day, Allport wrote, everyone talked about God and nobody talked about sex beyond the boudoir. In our day, everyone talks about sex (and for some inane reason, our talk is predominantly dirty!). God-talk in our culture, however, is borderline taboo, reserved for dimly lit rooms called sanctuaries.

God-talk as I define it, by the way, means real theological conversation, not the God-as-political-lever-and-lobbyist language that Carlin often chastised as part of American hypocrisy.

I never met Carlin, but I have fantasized a chance I might have to converse with him over a plate of pork chops and suggest that I think God laughs heartily and approvingly at the comedian’s exposition of our human silliness; but I’d also have to suggest that Carlin’s dirty words have become pedestrian, unnecessary and boring, and deserve but a marginal place in television, film or literature.

Recommended Reading:

Here’s an anecdote that not many will access in the weeks following the comedian’s death:


(Update: Unfortunately, this link to the Wittenburg Door, which ceased publication in 2008, is no longer working. The article to which it refers was an appreciation of Carlin written by journalist John Bloom, aka Joe Bob Briggs, that appeared on June 25, 2008. Interested readers might be able to locate it in the online archive of the retired magazine.)

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