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The Word

#@!*

What makes language 'foul'?

By Jan Freeman
November 9, 2008
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LAST TUESDAY, WHILE you were standing in line at the polls or tweaking your interactive electoral map, the Supreme Court took an hour to debate whether the F-word and the S-word are always and irredeemably dirty. The Federal Communications Commission was there to argue the case for its "Bono rule." The FCC used to tolerate "fleeting expletives" like Bono's F-word exclamation at the 2003 Golden Globe awards, saying they were not literal and thus not "indecent."

After Bono - and Nicole Richie and Cher, who sneaked past the censors during live awards shows on Fox TV - the FCC decided it wanted to penalize broadcasters even for fleeting and figurative transgressions. So now it is claiming that the F-word and the S-word always remind listeners of sex and excrement, no matter how metaphorical or meaningless the context.

A federal appeals court has already rejected the FCC's argument, citing taboo utterances by President Bush and Vice President Cheney as evidence that such uses don't necessarily carry the words' literal senses.

But Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia weren't persuaded. They seemed eager to agree with Gregory Garre, the US solicitor general, who said that "even the non-literal use of a word like the F-word, because of the core meaning of that word as one of the most vulgar, graphic, and explicit words for sexual activity . . . inevitably conjures up a coarse sexual image."

Scalia chimed in: "Which is, indeed, why it's used."

And Roberts, addressing Fox TV's lawyer Carter Phillips, endorsed the FCC's theory when he answered his own question - "Why do you think the F-word has shocking value or emphasis or force?" - with "Because it is associated with sexual or excretory activity."

This is pretty simple-minded reasoning for such smart guys. If the association with the literal sense is what makes words dirty, as the FCC contends, then why aren't sex, copulate, dung, and defecate dirty words?

Conversely, a word can be taboo without having a taboo source. Bloody turned bawdy in mid-18th century England, and it retains enough shock value that two years ago an Australian Tourist Board ad slogan - "Where the bloody hell are you?" - was banned in Britain. (Yes, people will tell you bloody is a reference to God's blood, Our Lady's blood, or menstrual blood. Ask them for the evidence.)

In fact, Phillips had the right answer: The F-word, he said, shocks for "the same reason the S-word does; it's because in some circles it is inappropriate." Words acquire taboo connotations the same way they get other senses: By our collective agreement.

"We as a society have invested ourselves in treating these words as taboo," Chris Potts, a linguist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the Wall Street Journal. "It sounds very circular, but the underlying logic is that because it is taboo it should remain taboo."

Scalia got a laugh by joking that sex is the reason we don't "use 'golly waddles' instead of the F-word." But "golly waddles" could easily be taboo, since golly is a replacement for "God." On my bookshelf is a 1942 novel, set in rural Ohio, in which a boy is punished for using an expression his grandmother calls "vile" and "blasphemous"; the expression is "by gosh."

But most of us, like Scalia, have long since forgotten that gosh is ungodly. It's a common fate of dysphemisms, notes Harvard's Steven Pinker, commenting on the FCC case in the current issue of The Atlantic. "Over time, taboo words relinquish their literal meanings and retain only a coloring of emotion, and then just an ability to arouse attention," he writes. "This progression explains why many speakers are unaware that sucker . . . originally referred to fellatio, or that a jerk was a masturbator."

The F-word, however, seems likely to retain its awful magic for a while yet. Roberts gave us his measure of its power when he conceded that kids - the object of all this judicial concern - can evaluate words in context. "They know . . . it's one thing to use the [F-word] in, say, 'Saving Private Ryan,' when your arm gets blown off. It's another thing to do it when you are standing up at an awards ceremony." It's the Roberts Rule: You can swear on daytime TV as long as you suffer grievous bodily harm.

Phillips, the Fox lawyer, suggested that all the hoop-de-do was overkill, that audiences and advertisers can enforce community standards without the feds. Pinker agrees: "In a free society, these annoyances are naturally regulated in the marketplace of people's reactions." I think they're probably right, though I'm a bad witness: I saw three reruns of "Sex and the City" on basic cable before I noticed that the cussing was missing. But then, I'm one of those wimpy viewers who would rather hear 100 obscenities than see a person's arm blown off.

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