Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bad Words

When is a noun more than a noun? When it's deleted ...

Let's start with a joke, which is actually a true story:

A friend's wife once had to give a lecture about "naughty words" to her small son after he had been reprimanded at school for using a four-letter synonym for "excrement." Next day while driving him back to school she had to make a sudden stop and her pocketbook and coffee went flying through the air.

Instantly she blurted out, "Oh, shhh--!" and caught herself.

The boy looked at her calmly and asked, "Do you want to say shit?"

This routine is familiar to any parent or grandparent. Even the most blasphemous and forgiving of us feel an obligation to introduce our young ones to the concept that there are certain words that cause offense to certain people, so it is considerate to moderate our language when in public. But in our society this prohibition often results in ridiculous persecution, reaching its heights in the media where the "public" is perceived to be the largest and most easily offended.

This past week on NBC's Today show they were interviewing Hans Lange, the base-jumper (AKA "Human Flying Squirrel") whose near-disaster video has been widely circulated. In a rare unguarded moment in live broadcasting, Lange used the expression "holy shit," which elicited a comical and sophomoric reaction from the crew on the set -- including interviewer Matt Lauer, who was captured with his hand over his mouth and eyes wide in shock.

Later the entire cast was called upon to issue a form of apology to protect their network from the censure of the FCC. And as they pointed out, viewers in the Western states where the broadcast is delayed would be protected by having the harsh language excised. Presumably then only lip-readers could be harmed by his words, unless the picture was also blotted out.

How bizarre this is. News broadcasts on the same program are filled with violence of all sorts, from war to terrorist bombings, from gang violence to rape and murder, child pornography and the salacious behavior of celebrities. They think nothing of airing lies and abusive political attacks in the guise of providing commentary on them. And if someone slips up publicly, as radio personality Don Imus did last year, they will replay the incident ad infinitum until we have become so bludgeoned by the words that they almost make no sense anymore. But let one small word which is uttered in private hundreds of millions of times each day be pronounced on the air waves, and all hell heck breaks loose.

Some years ago when Hugh Greene (brother of novelist Graham Greene) was director of the BBC, he was told that "Monty Python" should be taken off the air because "some people might be offended" by the show's off-color humor. He replied, "Well, some people should be offended," and left it alone.

It will likely be a long time before anyone with that courage and sense of proportion takes over at the FCC and introduces some common sense. By then it may well be irrelevant because the public will have moved on to more diverse and less regulated forms of information and entertainment. But meanwhile, couldn't we just lighten up a bit? If nursing mothers can bare their bosoms in airport waiting areas, do we really have to fine a TV network half a million dollars for accidentally showing a split-second glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple?

I don't know who first added the word "holy" to the common epithet up above. That would be an interesting exercise in linguistic derivation. And I suppose there are those among us to whom that is the more offensive of the two words when they are paired together. But -- I mean -- really now -- aren't they just words? Eight letters of the alphabet? How bad can they be?

Just as a few examples, here are some other pairs of words that I would consider more offensive and dangerous:
  • Kill Bill (movie title)
  • Patriot Act (repeal the Bill of Rights)
  • Military Intelligence (famous oxymoron)
  • Expletive Deleted (how Nixon swore)
Got more? Send me some comments.

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