Seven dirty words
The seven dirty words (or "Filthy Words") are seven English-language words that American comedian George Carlin first listed in 1972 in his monologue "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television". The words are: shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
At the time, the words were considered highly inappropriate and unsuitable for broadcast on the public airwaves in the United States, whether radio or television. As such, they were avoided in scripted material, and bleep censored in the rare cases in which they were used; broadcast standards differ in different parts of the world, then and now, although most of the words on Carlin's original list remain taboo on American broadcast television as of 2015. The list was not an official enumeration of forbidden words, but rather was compiled by Carlin. Nonetheless, a radio broadcast featuring these words led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped establish the extent to which the federal government could regulate speech on broadcast television and radio in the United States.
During one of Lenny Bruce's performances in 1966, he said he was arrested for saying nine words, and says them in alphabetical order: ass, balls, cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, tits. The last seven words are the same as George Carlin's.
In 1972, George Carlin released an album of stand-up comedy entitled Class Clown. One track on the album was "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," a monologue in which he identified these words, expressing amazement that these particular words could not be used, regardless of context. He was arrested for disturbing the peace when he performed the routine at a show at Summerfest in Milwaukee.
On his next album, 1973's Occupation: Foole, Carlin performed a similar routine titled "Filthy Words," dealing with the same list and many of the same themes. Pacifica station WBAI broadcast this version of the routine uncensored on October 30 that year.
Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation
John Douglas, an active member of Morality in Media, claimed that he heard the WBAI broadcast while driving with his then 15-year-old son and complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the material was inappropriate for the time of day.
Following the lodging of the complaint, the FCC proceeded to ask Pacifica for a response, then issued a declaratory order upholding the complaint. No specific sanctions were included in the order, but WBAI was put on notice that "in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." WBAI appealed this decision, which was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 2–1 decision on the grounds that the FCC's definition of "indecency" was overbroad and vague and thus violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. The FCC in turn appealed to the Supreme Court. As an independent federal agency, the FCC filed the appeal in its own name. The United States Department of Justice intervened in the case, supporting Pacifica's argument that the FCC's declaratory ruling violated the First Amendment and that it also violated the Fifth Amendment in that the FCC's definition of "indecency" was too vague to support criminal penalties. In 1978 the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that the FCC's Declaratory Ruling did not violate either the First or Fifth Amendments, but in so ruling it limited the scope of its ruling to the specific broadcast that gave rise to the Declaratory Ruling and declined to consider whether the FCC's definition of indecency would survive a First Amendment challenge if applied to the broadcast of other material containing the same or similar words which had been cited in Pacifica's brief (e.g., works of Shakespeare – "pissing conduits," "bawdy hand of the dial on the prick of noon"; the Bible – "he who pisseth against the wall"; the Watergate Tapes). It noted that while the Declaratory Ruling pertained to the meaning of the term indecency as used in a criminal statute (18 USC 1464), since the FCC had not imposed any penalty on Pacifica for the broadcast of words that came within the FCC's definition of "indecent," it did not need to reach the question as to whether the definition was too vague to satisfy the due process requirements of the Fifth Amendment.
This decision formally established indecency regulation in American broadcasting. In follow-up rulings, the Supreme Court established the safe harbor provision that grants broadcasters the right to broadcast indecent (but not obscene) material between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when it is presumed many children will be asleep. The FCC has never maintained a specific list of words prohibited from the airwaves during the time period from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but it has alleged that its own internal guidelines are sufficient to determine what it considers obscene. The seven dirty words had been assumed to be likely to elicit indecency-related action by the FCC if uttered on a TV or radio broadcast, and thus the broadcast networks generally censor themselves with regard to many of the seven dirty words. The FCC regulations regarding "fleeting" use of expletives were ruled unconstitutionally vague by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on July 13, 2010, as they violated the First Amendment due to their possible effects regarding free speech.
The original seven words are:
In his comedy special Carlin commented that at one point, a man asked him to remove motherfucker because, as a derivative of fuck, it constituted a duplication. He later added it back, claiming the bit's rhythm does not work without it. In his comedy routine, Carlin would make fun of each word; for example he would say that tits should not be on the list because it sounds like a nickname or a snack ("New Nabisco Tits! ...corn tits, cheese tits, tater tits!").
Carlin performed the routine many times and included it, in whole or in part on several of his records and HBO specials. Carlin noted in his 1983 speech at Cardinal Hayes High School, inducting Dean of Discipline Monsignor Stan Jablonski into the Hayes High Hall of Fame, that he was asked by the audience beforehand if he would be performing the seven dirty words skit at the ceremony. Parts or all of the performance appear on the following releases:
- 1972 - Class Clown - Audio recording - "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"
- 1973 - Occupation: Foole - Audio recording - "Filthy Words"
- 1977 - George Carlin at USC - HBO special - "Forbidden Words"
- 1978 - George Carlin: Again! - HBO special - "Dirty Words"
- 1983 - Carlin at Carnegie - HBO special - "Filthy Words"
The Carlin at Carnegie version can be heard as "An Incomplete List of Impolite Words" on the 1984 album Carlin on Campus (but not in the HBO special, Carlin on Campus). That version of the list features over 300 dirty words and phrases in an effort to stop people telling him that he left something off the list. Four days after Carlin's original Class Clown recording, the routine was performed again for students at University of California, Los Angeles. This would be months before its first official release. The recording was restored in December, 2013 and uploaded to YouTube by archivists at UCLA and can be accessed free of charge.
The FCC ruling is referenced in "Offensive Language" from the album Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics and HBO special Doin' It Again, both 1990 recordings of the same performance, however the routine that follows is entirely different.
The Class Clown version can also be heard on the vinyl/cassette only release Indecent Exposure (1978). The Occupation: Foole version can also be heard on Classic Gold (1992). Both versions were re-released again as part of The Little David Years (1971–1977).
In popular culture
The 2008 installment of "Dead Letters", The Washington Post Style Invitational's annual collection of verse-form obituaries for persons who died in the previous year, included a Carlin obituary in whose text seven words were "blanked out" without explanation, leaving readers to use the poem's rhyme scheme, its meter, and their independent knowledge of the monologue and/or FCC v. Pacifica case to determine which words belonged where.
On December 8, 2003, Rep. Doug Ose (R-CA) introduced a bill in Congress to designate a derivative list of Carlin's offensive words as profane in the U.S. Code. The stated purpose of the bill was "To amend section 1464 of title 18, United States Code, to provide for the punishment of certain profane broadcasts." In the text of the bill, the following eight words are specifically mentioned: 'shit', 'piss', 'fuck', 'cunt', 'asshole', and the phrases 'cock sucker', 'mother fucker', and 'ass hole'.
The FCC obscenity guidelines have never been applied to non-broadcast media such as cable television or satellite radio. It is widely held that the FCC's authorizing legislation (particularly the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996) does not enable the FCC to regulate content on subscription-based services, which include cable television, satellite television, and pay-per-view television. Whether the FCC or the Department of Justice could be empowered by the Congress to restrict indecent content on cable television without such legislation violating the Constitution has never been settled by a court of law. Since cable television must be subscribed to in order to receive it legally, it has long been thought that since subscribers who object to the content being delivered may cancel their subscription, an incentive is created for the cable operators to self-regulate (unlike broadcast television, cable television is not legally considered to be "pervasive", nor does it depend on a scarce, government-allocated electromagnetic spectrum; as such, neither of the arguments buttressing the case for broadcast regulation particularly apply to cable television).
Self-regulation by many basic cable networks is undertaken by Standards and Practices (S&P) departments that self-censor their programming because of the pressure put on them by advertisers – also meaning that any basic cable network willing to ignore such pressure could use any of the Seven Dirty Words.
In recent years, many or all of the words on Carlin's list have come into common usage in many made-for-cable series and film productions.
- Chaudhry Muhammad Barjees Tahir#Banning obscene words and websites
- Communications Decency Act
- Morality in Media
- Watershed (broadcasting)
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- Fairman, Christopher M. (2009). Fuck: Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties. Sphinx Publishing. ISBN 1572487119.
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