Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Honor of George Carlin

Just a few days ago, I got a rather odd piece of e-mail apparently meant for me even though the salutation read "Dear Mr. Kelly". At least, if it wasn't meant for me, there's some other author out there whose writing is "not a fun place to be", and in which the ocean plays a prominent role. Which, come to think of it, is not especially unlikely.

Anyway, I endeavored to answer this guy's questions, which ranged from specific queries about Hemmingway flashfic to write-your-own-essay questions like "Why does ______ matter?" (I had to cut some corners on that last type, especially when the blank was filled by subjects like "the ocean" and "science fiction".) But the weirdest question of the lot had to be
"What is in your opinion the most important word or if that is to (sic) limited idea in the English language for story making etc . and why so?"
What the fuck, thought I. And therein lay the seeds of my answer:
I don't think there is a "most important word", but if forced to choose, I'd probably pick "fuck". Firstly, it appears in a lot of dialog. Secondly, it connotes mating/sexuality/reproductive behavior— and in Darwin's universe, everything boils down to inclusive fitness, reproductive success. Territorial squabbles, head-butting behavior, social systems: pretty much everything we do, the whole of human drama, is massively impacted by the energetics of reproduction.

Plus, it pisses my parents off something fierce.
A magic word, fuck. A voodoo word, condemned and censured by pretty much every official institution for no real reason anyone can pin down except that, a few centuries ago, this continent was invaded by a bunch of bible-thumping prudes so scared of their own animal secretions that they felt compelled to demonize any public reference to bodily functions. A day barely passes when I don't marvel at this absurdity. Somehow, unlimited and gratuitous use of the word frak is safe for the delicate ears of children the world over— but let fuck pass your lips, although it means exactly the same thing, and the glowering goons from Standards and Practices will have your ass in a sling and your broadcast license up for review faster than you can say "cuntlips". Assuming, of course, that you could say "cuntlips".

Carlin did his best to strip such words of the idiotic power they hold over the brain-dead in our midst. (He also had some cogent and cutting things to say about religion, not that many of the mainstream media types seem to be mentioning that aspect of his routine.) And now he's left us, his noble task incomplete.




Blogger Strannik said...

Well done. I wondered if you'd mention Carlin - you strike me as one who'd enjoy his humor.

Anyway, well done and the last bit made me snort.

June 24, 2008 12:38 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

I've wondered. As time goes on, media and information becomes more pervasive, and therefore there are more niches and broader audiences: thus, more celebrities (compare: the dizzying array of famous lunatics to that of a hundred years ago). In twenty years, will there be daily celebrity deaths? Will newspapers just have a section, "dead famous people"?

June 24, 2008 2:36 PM  
Blogger razorsmile said...

That interview email was either (a) Babelfished or (b) composed by an evolved spambot.

Until yesterday, I was under the impression that George Carlin was already dead. There was so much idiomatic egg on my face, let me tell ya ...

June 24, 2008 3:52 PM  
Anonymous gyanesh said...

Heard of Osho Rajneesh? He did a satsang once in the late seventies early eighties on how the word fuck was the most useful word in the english language. The talk was recorded and ended being known as the fuck tape... can't remember how long the rave was but from memory (vague at the best of times) was screamingly funny and had me in stitches when I heard it...so if you know any of his sanyasins(followers) you could ask around for it

June 24, 2008 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean "Fucking Quitter".

June 25, 2008 12:59 AM  
Blogger Pharaohmagnetic said...

I think there’s a positive spin on the magical, voodoo power of the word “fuck”. Examined semiotically, any word (for example, “boat”) has power, too; when I employ it, you (the listener) imagine a boat in your mind. It would be silly for me to protest that the word “boat” doesn’t convey my arbitrary, desired concept of “jambalaya” in your mind; the word is embedded in a cultural context which imbues the sign in question, the vulgar word “fuck”, with the interpretant that so effectively raises the hackles of so many people. Because there exists a population of froth-lipped, bible-thumping prudes, there exists the fertile soil into which f-bombs can be lobbed.

Why salt that soil and rob the f-word of its power? Why diminish the idea-space of a perfectly good representamen?

Compare English to other languages. From what I understand about, say, Hungarian, every other entry in the dictionary is a swear word. English, at one time, used to have that same diversity, and it was more colourful –and capable-- as a result. “damn,” “hell”, “ass”, even “zounds” where all words that caused gentlepeople to faint from shock, but now you’ll hear those words in a 3rd grade classroom. (Well, maybe not “zounds.”) The word “pussy” is losing its currency, evolutionarily supplanted by the c-word. “Whore” and “bitch,” “bastard” and “cock” used to elicit gasps – now they elicit yawns.
There are things you can do in Hungarian which we English-speakers can’t even comprehend. E.g.:

az isten bassza meg a büdös rücskös kurva anyádat - a curse. 'May God fuck your stinking wrinkled whore mother'. This is a very strong curse with no conceivable analog.

Baszom a szád szélét, Sanyikám! (expression) – a ribald, friendly salutation when drinking together, meaning “Cheers!” Literally: "I fuck the corner of your mouth, my dear Alexander."

Lamentably, due to the paucity of the English language’s vulgarity, we cannot curse with the same degree of anger – or bond with the same degree of friendly cheer – as our Hungarian rivals. Damn those sons of bitches! Fiddlesticks.

There were only 7 words on George Carlin’s famous little list, and that’s a shame. Listen to your average rap song, and you’ll find a depressing linguistic monotony. There are only so many ways to convey angry, offensive aggression in the English language. Most of them involve some permutation of your mom, and f-ing her.

The likes of George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and HBO are robbing the English language of its emotional power. They are innovators, yes, but they nudge the evolutionary pathway of our language into less diverse spaces. In the future, children won’t be able to piss off their parents with words.

Besides, that the f-word is so offensive to Those Crazy Prudes is the very reason that it’s so funny to the rest of us. Take your favourite joke* that has the f-word in the punchline, and replace it with “frak”. Sure, “frak” means the same thing, but it’s not as funny, is it?

*mine is:
The curator of a history museum asked an artist for a painting depicting General Custer's last thoughts. Two weeks later, the artist unveiled a painting of an enormous canvas with a lovely blue lake painted in the center, with a fish leaping from the water with a shining halo around its head.
On the shores of the lake were the most detailed pictures of Native Americans fornicating. After gaping at the picture for some time, the enraged curator demanded to know what the theme was supposed to be.

'You asked for a painting of Custer's last thoughts,' he explained. 'I figured Custer’s last thoughts would be: 'Holy Mackerel, where did all those fucking Indians come from?'

June 25, 2008 12:27 PM  
Blogger nas said...

Further to Pharaomagnetic's comments:

I personally champion Russian as the *ne plus ultra* of cursing languages.

Remember the old skit where Steve Martin, with his voice full of wonder and awe, says: "*Chapeau* means cap. It's like those French have a different word for *everything*!" Well, Russian is like that, except they have a different cuss word for everything, reaching down to very fine degrees of precision (nano-cussing, I would call it... there's plenty of room at the, ahem, bottom).

For instance, Russian has a term for a woman's vagina that is relatively ventrally located, and another term for one that is relatively dorsally located. They have a specific word for "a little old man who farts a lot." And then they have the absurd words. Not just metaphoric euphemisms like all languages have, but sheer absurdities, like "cheorney chemodan" for "cunt." The literal meaning? "Black suitcase."

And swearing is essential to Russian. The University of Toronto Press at one point issued a Dictionary of Russian Obscenity because obscenity featured so prominently and inextricably in classic Russian literature that you had to be able to understand it, but naturally the words you wanted to look up weren't in the normal Russian/English dictionary (I am the proud owner of a copy of this fine volume). If anyone knows of another national literature that *required* a dictionary of obscenities in order to not only render it in all its depth and glory, but simply to make it comrehensible, please let me know, 'cause I have yet to run across one.

And lest anyone think I'm down on the Russians (is it even possible to write about this without weird double-entndres?) far from it -- I *celebrate* the fuckers.

June 25, 2008 3:00 PM  
Blogger Richard Mason said...

Coincidentally, I turned on the television this morning (a departure from my usual routine) and watched some MTV.

They showed some music videos with at least 25% of the lyrics muted out. Verses were rendered incomprehensible. The remaining words did not rhyme or scan.

I... don't get it.

June 25, 2008 4:40 PM  
Blogger SpeakerToManagers said...

Be fair. Carlin was a genius, and one of the great comic performers of his time (mayhe the great performer; I wouldn't argue with that claim). But even he would have had to put in lifetimes of railing, ranting, and poking fun at prudes to get them to stop agonizing over the list of "dirty" words, and they'd just have put together a new list while he was doing it.

Oh, roger it.

June 27, 2008 3:08 AM  
Blogger jdavidson said...

My mother uses the word fuck a lot. I've always appreciated that. I think it has partial responsibility to the way I've turned out as an adult. Yep, that word doesn't mean much to me. As previous posters have said, words alone are not as shocking anymore. You've got to work harder to widen these eyes ! You've got to string a whole repulsive sentence together and really convey something awful..

This isn't a bad thing.

June 27, 2008 7:47 PM  
OpenID bec-87rb said...

My 11th grade English teacher said that the probable derivation of "fuck" was from the Anglo-Saxon, "fikken," meaning "to strike."

He claimed that after 1066, the Norman language became the tongue of the mighty, and Anglo-Saxon words became low-brow, so if you wanted to say something delicately, you used French, and for more country matters, Anglo-Saxon.

Wonder if he was having me on?

July 1, 2008 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Herod said...

Hail to bec-87rb for saying what I had in mind - many of the obscenities current in English were once perfectly acceptable in Anglo-Saxon until the bastard Normans replaced it as the language of courtly discourse with French, this relegating the language of the English below stairs.

July 7, 2008 9:22 AM  

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