Seven Dirty Words

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    "Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, turd and twat."
    George Carlin, a little bit later.
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    On his seminal comedy album Class Clown, the late great George Carlin observed that there were exactly seven (later upgraded to ten, later upgraded to over 200) words you could never say on (American) television. Over 35 years later, his Seven Dirty Words are still the best and most famous encapsulation of the bizarre censorship standards that exist in American television.

    Modern American network television is notoriously rife with violence, sexual situations, and other unpleasantness that would not be seen in most countries. But American TV is also notoriously priggish when it comes to language and social mores. American broadcasters avoided broadcasting mundanities like toilets, pregnancy, and two-person beds until the 1960s, or even later.

    It is against this backdrop—priggishness way beyond cultural norms, at a time where American society was openly questioning authority—that Carlin's little list caused such a furor.

    In 1972, Carlin was arrested merely for performing his Seven Dirty Words routine in public. At the time, many places had laws against public obscenity and indecency, which local Moral Guardians gladly enforced. But in the climate of the times, such arguments found their way to higher courts, who found the concept of obscenity notoriously difficult to define.

    A year later, a New York City radio station (WBAI-FM) played a different iteration of the Seven Dirty Words bit, uncensored. A man driving in the car with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission that his son had to be exposed to such filth. When the legal dust settled, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Seven Dirty Words might be acceptable for broadcast under circumstances, but that the FCC had the right to restrict broadcast content at times when children might be exposed to it. But they weren't exactly specific about any of it.

    With no real definition of what is or isn't obscene, pushing the envelope in American network television has mostly been a game of "try it and see if you get away with it." The FCC has the right to grant and revoke broadcast licenses, so they wield considerable power. For this reason, American broadcasters err very heavily on the side of not pissing off the FCC. Especially after that whole Janet Jackson boob thing, which saw unprecedented complaints, litigation, fines, and stricter new rules.

    So how do the Seven Dirty Words hold up against modern standards? (Especially since you can say shit and fuck in a British eulogy!)

    The FCC has established a "safe harbor" of midnight to 6am. A broadcast station, if it could get the rights to do so, could run the unedited version of Scarface at 3 in the morning, up to and including Elvira's complaint, "Can't you stop saying 'fuck' all the time?" without being subject to penalties. During the rest of the time, whether they can run a particular vulgar word depends on why it is is happening, the context and the time of day that it is shown. A judge on a three-judge panel overhearing the Fox Network's appeal of an FCC ruling, sardonically questioned the government's lawyer, by saying, "So while a television station normally wouldn't be able to use this sort of word during the day time, it would be legal if one of them ran an unedited news report at 8 AM where a federal judge said 'fuck' from the bench to a lawyer?" and the government's lawyer more-or-less reluctantly agreed.

    • Shit - NYPD Blue, a show long known for pushing boundaries, announced that it would air the first uncensored instance of the word "shit" on network television. The furor was fairly small, but the idea was viciously mocked in an episode of South Park. In "It Hits The Fan", the word "shit" was said 165 times, and an on-screen counter was featured. (It should be noted that Comedy Central is a cable channel, and isn't under the thumb of the FCC. They now say "shit" pretty regularly on that channel.)
      • This is not exactly accurate, as CBS, more than a decade earlier, announced it would leave two uses of the word "bullshit" intact when it ran the movie Network.
    • Piss - It's hard to tell when exactly it started, but this word is perfectly acceptable on TV now and has dropped all the way down to the PG tier, at least in a figure of speech ("piss[ed] off", meaning annoy[ed]).
      • According to the other wiki, the 1980 miniseries Shogun was the first to allow the word (to mean "urinate").
      • Oddly enough, it's in the King Jimmy Bible, multiple times. E.g., "him that pisseth against the wall" and "Are they not doomed with you to eat their own filth and drink their own piss?" Mark Twain had fun with this one.
        • Yeah, but—FUN FACT! In the era in which the bible was translated, "piss" was the common way to say it. The rudeness comes apparently just from the dislike of the class of the person who would use it. So...if you look at it another way, it should be very odd that this word is disliked in today's society.
      • This one might on the verge of jumping the barrier between "swear" and "non-swear" altogether. It was also the only PG word used in Napoleon Dynamite, a movie known for being squeaky-clean (having been written by Mormons and all).
      • Heck, shows on Cartoon Network have started using it (most notably, Regular Show).
      • On American TV it's borderline banal when expressing anger (i.e. "That really pisses me off") and almost unheard otherwise.
        • George Carlin himself, in later life, pointed out in at least one interview that the acceptability of "piss" is generally a question of whether or not it is an actual reference to urine -- "I got pissed off" is far less likely to get bleeped than "I got pissed on".
      • In the UK "pissed" means drunk, so while it's unlikely to be heard on children's TV it wouldn't raise an eyebrow at other times.
    • Fuck - Still strictly verboten in American television. Bono said it at the 2003 Golden Globe awards. The FCC originally found it not to be indecent in this context. Then they changed their minds. We await further clarification. We are not holding our breath.
      • It came. The Supreme Court said in 2009 that "fleeting expletives" like Bono's could be fined.
      • No fucking fleeting expletives, Bono, you fucker!
      • Hence the existence of both Frak and Rut.
      • However, on September 11, 2001, some of the networks aired amateur footage of the World Trade Center attacks with the F-bombs intact (Dan Rather even apologized for a few of them), and the FCC didn't do anything. Later on, when CBS aired the Naudet Brothers' 9/11 documentary, they were (somewhat controversially) allowed to leave the F-bombs intact.
    • Cunt - Not only forbidden in American television, but in almost all conversation. Considered extremely vulgar, but used more as a unisex term of offense outside of the USA and Canada.
    • Cocksucker - While "suck" and other forms are widely used even in G-rated media, and "cock" is acceptable if you're talking about chickens, "cocksucker" is still largely banned. If you want to know for certain, watch a non-HBO rebroadcast of the movie Bull Durham; there is a scene that depends upon the word.
    • Motherfucker - See "fuck." A fan pointed out to Carlin that the word was redundant, but Carlin kept it in because removing it disrupted the rhythm of the piece.
      • Also, probably it was included due to its implication with mother and son incest.
    • Tits - Like "piss", it probably crept in at some point, but there are still places that will censor it. It was deleted, for example, from Grease in the scene where the T-Birds are mocking the cheerleaders.

    Later in the 1970s, Carlin added three auxiliary words to the list:

    • Fart - This one has changed significantly. At the time, Carlin observed that not only was the word "fart" forbidden, but you weren't allowed to reference the act. Nowadays, fart humor is a staple of comedy shows of all types.
    • Turd - Carlin said it best: "You can't say 'turd' on television, but who wants to?" It's used for toilet humor, which is currently accepted and common in PG-rated works that cannot use "shit" freely.
    • Twat - Like "cunt", but a little milder. In Britain, it can also mean to hit or strike something, as in "Twat him in the face, Steve!" or a person who is generally extremely stupid, as in "You are such a twat, Steve!"

    Are there any words not on Carlin's 1972 list that can't be said on American television in 2008? Lots of them. So if you think about it for a moment, these aren't seven dirty words at all. "Goddamn", "dick" (at least when used to refer to a penis), and "asshole" are usually out and always have been (although "dick" has seen increased use on network comedies and dramas to refer to unpleasant persons, and "asshole" is also allowed, to an extremely limited extent, on a few network dramas).

    A rather humorous incident occurred when a live program allowed a person to refer to the former Vice President as Dick Cheney, but then bleeped the speaker when they referred to someone else as a dick.

    "Cock" might be also; at any rate it certainly isn't used much. It's interesting to note that "goddamn" and "asshole" are usually censored as "---damn" and "ass---- ". Yes, "God" and "hole" are bleeped out[1] "Blowjob" and "handjob" are also reduced to "**** job." "Douchebag" was, until recently, fairly unheard of on broadcast stations (although "douche" and "d-bag" were allowed). Shows such as 30 Rock and Glee have recently begun to use the word to a limited extent, although it is still far from commonplace.

    • Something that makes it kind of hard to discern between them, "**** " and "**** " both being four letter words and all.

    Racial and ethnic humor, a staple of 1970s television, is now avoided. It would be impossible to air fully half of this sketch from the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975. You could probably make a new list from all the ethnic slurs that were once permitted in American television, but aren't any more. In fact, if you were a visionary comedian, you could probably make a very funny bit out of it.[2]

    Live events, to avoid these and other dirty words, often refer to a seven second delay; an athlete, say, will say something, and seven seconds later it actually hits the air, giving the networks time to modify the transmission. Note that live events are NOT immune to the dirty words; ask Dale Earnhardt Jr, who walked away from a race with a few less points and a few less thousand dollars after commenting that his win didn't 'mean shit'. The penalties were obviously levied by NASCAR, not the FCC, but would NASCAR have done it without someone else's suggestion on what's dirty?


    Media That Have Referenced The Seven Dirty Words

    Comic Books

    • The Simpsons comic book in one issue showed a weary George Carlin talking about "The Seven Words You Used to Not Be Able to Say on TV But Are Perfectly Alright Now."

    Film

    • In Bruce Almighty, the eponymous Bruce is trying to convince his ex to come back to him, and has the following conversation:
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    Bruce: Would it help if I said I was being a complete ass?
    Nearby Child:You said ass!
    Bruce: It's okay if I'm talkin' about a donkey.

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      • But then he goes and ruins it.
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    Bruce: ...If I said "hole", as in assHO-
    Grace: (cutting him off) OKAY!

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    Literature

    • A paragraph in Part III, Chapter VI of Gulliver's Travels describes the "decoding" of letters and papers to "prove" their authors guilty of plotting against the state. This process consists of replacing one noun with a related one ("...they can decypher a Close-stool to signify a Privy-Council; a Flock of Geese, a Senate..."). One of the substitutions is to replace "a Sink" with "a C---t" (censored thus, or replaced with "court", in most printings, but the intended word is fairly obvious).
    • In the Discworld novel "The Truth", one of the characters actually says "-ing" rather than the full word (presumably "fucking").
      • Pratchett once mentioned that he occasionally gets mail worried that children will start saying "-ing" as though it actually is a swearword, which goes to prove two things: First, profanity is what you make of it, and second, there is nothing that someone, somewhere, won't take offense to.
        • It's a speech impediment...
        • And one character adapts it, gleefully saying "ing" (without the dash) and admitting that it makes her feel better, though she wonders what it means.
      • Quite a few instances of "**** ing" in Discworld novels are referred to as though characters are somehow pronouncing the asterisks.
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    First Villain: I HATE ****ing wizards!
    Second Villain: Maybe you shouldn't **** them, then...

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    • In Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, Martin Silenus suffers brain damage that reduces his vocabulary to the Seven Dirty Words. He manages to communicate with them quite effectively. He eventually gets better.
    • Twelfth Night by Shakespeare:
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    By my life, this is my lady's hand[writing]; these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's.

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    Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
    Ophelia: No, my lord.
    Hamlet: I mean my head upon your lap.
    Ophelia: Aye, my lord.
    Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
    Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
    Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.

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    Live-Action TV

    • In Everybody Hates Chris, Chris hears his parents listen to the Carlin routine. He passes on the list at school to get laughs, but ends up in trouble for it. To get the story onto network TV, each word is replaced with its number in Carlin's list. The last line of the episode: "Number Threeeeeeeeee!"
    • An episode of That '70s Show featured the gang listening to the record. Eric went through the rest of the episode using the numbers to insult people. Donna (on Eric's suggestion) later tricks a rival radio DJ into playing the record on the air to get the other woman fired.
    • Have I Got Unbroadcastable News For You: Despite being exclusively for home video the producer would like to point some words not to mention in the recording...
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    Producer: Wee-wee, piddle, nipples, farting, winkle, poo-poos, front bottom, semolina-
    Richard Wilson: Semolina?
    Producer waves hand in 'Don't even go there!' manner.
    Producer: Penetrate, fallopian, renal, rectum, post-coital and simultaneous multiple orgasm.
    Richard Wilson: What about 'fuck'?
    Producer: Oh, yeah! You can say fuck! Got to sell it to the thirteen-year-olds, after all.

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    • Monty Python's Flying Circus has a similar bit, with slides showing the words that can no longer be used on the program: B*m, B*tty, P*x, Kn*ckers, Kn*ckers, W**-W**, and Semprini.
    • Inverted on MythBusters, where Adam rattles off a list of numerous synonyms for "shit" that the producers will let them use, in their test of the adage: "You can't polish a turd". (Yes, both "shit" and "turd" were bleeped out.)
      • This was one of them that he said, "And we can only say * this* twice!" Jamie immediately says it again, thereby forcing it to be censored. The (hilarious) point was that that sort of censoring was rather ridiculous. And it was.
    • Whilst it is probably not a direct reference there is a Two Ronnies sketch about a swear jar in a pub to raise money for the church idea. All of the swearing is censored by beeps, klaxons and so on (with each clearly meant to be a certain word, a whooping noise being much worse than the others and worth £1 rather than 20p.)
    • In The Colbert Report Stephen did a segment on Carlin's death where he mistook the list as a list of words Carlin himself banned from the airwaves. After he thanks him, an off-screen man tells Stephen that Carlin was a stand-up who used that list to mock censorship. Stephen then turned to a photo of Carlin and called him a motherf*beep*er

    Music

    • Blink-182 has a number of yawn-and-you-won't-hear-it short songs that are largely excuses to use profanity. One of them—the ironically-titled song "Family Reunion"—uses the Seven Dirty Words, including the three auxiliary words (You can hear it here. Language warning, obviously.) After four verses consisting entirely of those ten words repeated rhythmically, the song finishes with "I fucked your mom".
      • And then an "outtake" by Tom in a wobbly tenor:
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    "I wanna suck my daaaad, and my momma too-- Oh, is this thing on?"

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    • Tim Minchin plays with this. "I saw the word fuck on the front page of the newspaper--all they had to do was spell it f** k." He goes on to point out that by contrast, you couldn't get away with a normally innocuous word like finger, even if you spelt it f** ger in "I want to finger your mum."
    • Flanders and Swann spoofed the swearing and censorship brigade as early as The Fifties, with a song called Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers. The song title was printed on the album cover as "P** P* B**** B** D******".

    Video Games

    • In Sam and Max Season 2, you can actually change the "seven words you can't say on television" to Items on a Grocery list. (Cantaloupe, Melons, Chicken Breasts, Oregano Vanilla and Soda)

    Western Animation

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    Mr. Krabs: Yessir, that is bad word number 11. In fact, there are 13 bad words you should never use.
    Squidward: Don't you mean there are only seven?
    Mr. Krabs: Not if you're a sailor.

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      • The concept of censorship itself is also played with later in the episode-throughout the episode, instead of actual swears, we hear any of thirteen different sound effects, depending on which swear is being used (this is important). Later in the episode, after being soundly scolded by Mr. Krabs' dear old mum and forced to paint her house in order to atone for their sins, Mrs. Krabs stubs her pegleg and emits the sound of an old automobile horn. Mr. Krabs, shocked, cries, "Mother!" Whereupon Mrs. Krabs says, "What? It's Old Man Jenkins in his jalopy!" (Now just think about that for a minute or two)
        • Don't get it.
        • Their swears are sound effects. Choke on that, [Dolphin sound]er!
        • It also means that Old Man Jenkins has apparently rigged his car's horn to blare expletives.
        • Actually, the car horn was not a Sound Effects Bleep for one of the 13 dirty words. The gag was about the episodes use of weird sounds used in place of actual expletives.
    • The Simpsons
      • After Kent Brockman was fired for saying "a word so vile it should only be uttered by Satan himself while sitting on the toilet", Grandpa remarks that in his day TV celebrities weren't allowed to say "booby", "tushy", "burp", "fanny-burp",[3] "underpants", "dingle-dangle", "Boston marriage", "LBJ", "Titicaca", or "frontlumps".
      • In the episode where Bart and Nelson go to war, Grampa is seen writing a letter about "words that shouldn't be used on TV", one of them (Family Jewels) turns out to be an example of Strange Minds Think Alike, as it was used a scene earlier.
      • From the episode "Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington":
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    Krusty: I could even tell the FCC to take a hike. Look at this list of words they won't let me say on the air. (hands Bart a piece of paper)
    Bart: Aww! All the good ones. Hmm, I never even heard of number nine.
    Krusty: That's 2-ing 13 while she's 11-ing your 5.
    Bart: Can I keep this?
    Krusty: Sure, no 12 off my ass.

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      • In yet another episode, Krusty is banned from television for ten years for saying the word "pants" on the air during the fifties. The word "pants" was, in fact, considered a dirty word at one time, though this was in the 19th century rather than in the 1950s. For that it would seem perfectly normal to still be an issue in Springfield, since they burn people at the stake for science. They move at a slower rate than the rest of the world.
      • Krusty seems to like this one. From yet another episode:
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    Assistant: George Carlin on the line.
    Krusty: Yeah? Lawsuit? Oh, come on. My "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit was entirely different from your "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit.

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      • And then there's Kent Brockman in a (supposedly) live newscast:
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    Kent: How can I prove we're live? Penis!

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    • South Park: In the aforementioned "It Hits The Fan", the verboten words are revealed to represent a literal curse, each one associated with a dragon, and defended by the Knights of Standards and Practices. One of the less-well known dirty words is "Mee Krob", a Thai noodle dish.
    • The Animaniacs song about Lake Titicaca ends with the Warners stating their love of saying that word...think about it for a minute, por favor.
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    Oh Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca
    Why do we sing of its fame?
    Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca
    'Cause we really like saying its name!

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    Real Life

    • On Radio Caroline's 1977 New Year show, Dutch DJ Marc Jacobs responded to a ribbing by another DJ with the words "You motherfucker!" Jacobs later apologised on air, but since Caroline was a pirate station there were no official reprisals.

    Media That Have Referenced American TV Censorship Standards In General

    Film

    • The South Park feature film, Bigger, Longer & Uncut, brutally savaged the MPAA's rules for industry censorship as the driving force for the main story arc.
      • In fact, the subtitle was original something more tame but less subtle. Censors got on their asses about it and they responded as you might expect Trey Parker and Matt Stone would.

    Live Action TV

    • 30 Rock: Tracy Jordan decided to exploit the fact that he could easily pay the $50,000 fine for every time he swore on TV.
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    Tracy: I'm off to appear on Martha Stewart Live. Oh, it's gonna be raunchy!

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    Newspaper Comics

    • One Story Arc in Bloom County referred to finding the word "Snugglebunnies" as offensive. A strip in this arc had Milo and Binkley, upon notification, yelling "SNUGGLEBUNNIES!" repeatedly until being cut off mid-word. And mid-panel; the fourth panel was blank, presumably because the strip was cut off.

    Web Original

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    AVGN: Whoever came up with this is an ass[bleep]! [[[Beat]]] ...Ass! [[[Beat]]] ...Hole? -- ASS[bleep]! ...Television makes a whole lot of sense.

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    Western Animation

    Other

    • Eric Idle wrote a song about the FCC after he was fined for swearing. [1]
    • In addition to his I Bet You They Won't Play This Song On The Radio, a parody on the use of random sounds to beep out swear words.
    1. Which sort of makes sense for the former, given that its taboo status is rooted -- partially, at least -- in the (misinterpreted) Judeo-Christian commandment against "taking the Lord's name in vain". For the latter, the only rational explanation seems to be that "ass" by itself is significantly less offensive.
    2. George Carlin did that one, too, in 1990.
    3. In the UK, the term "fanny" refers to an entirely different part of the body (one that only females have).