In the Words of George Carlin...

I was on the morning commuter train when I found out that George Carlin had died. My immediate grief-stricken reaction involved three of the comedian's famed "seven dirty words." He used to declare that they were the words you couldn't say on TV. It turns out, you shouldn't say them on the midtown-bound Metro-North train, either. A young mother sitting near me scrambled to cover her toddler's ears. I wanted to utter the remaining four, but decided it was in my best interests to keep the rest of the train-ride G-rated.
George Carlin was hauled off to the joint in 1972 for a similar offense: using seven "filthy" words on the public airwaves. During the uncomfortable half hour left of my morning commute, I recalled the day I studied the 1978 Supreme Court case F.C.C v Pacifica Foundation in my "Media Law and Ethics" class at journalism school—the case that Carlin's "colorful" monologue spawned.

"Who can name the seven words at issue in the case?" the professor asked. Clearly, he had not expected that anyone had memorized them (or that anyone had even done the required reading), because he drew a long breath in anticipation of reciting them himself. He didn't even get to exhale before I finished blurting them all out in a melodic sequence. To this day, I imagine the professor still thinks I actually did the reading in preparation for class.

The length of time for which I've known the precise meaning of all of those words would probably shock most parents. I can prove it too. My parents still have an old home movie they took when I was three. I'm playing with my toys on camera, and my father (off camera) asks me to say something. I put down my toys and turn to face the camera. I smile, and scream, "S---!"

But George Carlin didn't teach me dirty words. Some blame my potty mouth on my aunt, or my parents, or my uncensored access to movie channels. The first time I ever saw George Carlin was as "Rufus" in the PG-rated "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" when I was seven. His monologues, diatribes and rants became popular entertainment in my family long after I had heard all the swear words already. But Carlin sure taught me how to use those naughty words.
They're just words, right? Carlin always said both offstage and on that he thought it wasn't what he said, but how he said it, that made him funny. In November, now posthumously, Carlin is to be awarded the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement for humor. (Carlin's response, as The Washington Post reported last week, was, "Thank you Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people.") Much like Twain, he used language to make social commentary, which had a far more powerful effect on his audiences than simply making us snicker when he made poop jokes.

The decision in F.C.C. v Pacifica Foundation declared Carlin's dirty words indecent rather than outright offensive, which meant programs could air them only before 6 a.m. and after 10 p.m. But his argument seemed to be that omitting them might be the greater offense: "Some time during my life, toilet paper became bathroom tissue…Constipation became occasional irregularity." He loathed "that soft language, the language that takes the life out of life," he said.

I didn't always agree with George Carlin's commentaries. I don't think we should fence off square states like Wyoming and Kansas, round up all the crazies and sickos and murderers, and throw them in there together to have at it as a prison sentence. But the way he describes how he wants to see that happen, his delivery—he never stumbled over the words—was what always got the milk spurting from my nose. His famed routine about airline standards, still to this day, has me suppressing giggles when airline ticket agents ask me if I packed my bags myself. My inclination is to tell airline ticket agents that Carrot-Top packed my bags, and I left them out on my sketchy street corner overnight.

Carlin's philosophy struck a chord with me. How do you tell a story without the freedom to choose the words to tell it? What's the fun in talking about sex if you can't actually describe it? How do you learn anything about our language's history if we've banned all of its colorful colloquialisms? And it takes so much more effort to find appropriate non-offensive phrases to exclaim when you've been smacked in the toe with a hammer. Or when you find out one of your favorite comedians has died.

"Fear of aging is natural, it's universal, isn't it?" Carlin asked of his audience during a performance in the 90s. "We all have that. No one wants to get old. No one wants to die. But we do. So we bulls--- ourselves." He never did.