Signs and Wonders

George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP

Georgecarlinrh04_2 George Carlin, one of my heroes, has died at the age of 71—way too young for such a free spirit and incisive observer of the absurdities of life and language. Fitting that he was recently honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; I can't think of anyone's style that reminds me so much of Twain: irreverent, sarcastic, disrespectful, and fearless. One routine he'll go down in history for was the Seven Words You Can't Say on TV:

"The original seven words were, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and (laughter) maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor (laughter) um, and a bourbon."

New York radio station WBAI let him say them on the air in the early 70's and in 1978, the obscenity case went to the Supreme Court, where the censuring and censoring was upheld, perpetuating stupidity like the fines for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." Carlin was particularly good at pointing out societal hypocrisy, which is probably one of the reasons I loved him so: "The word shit, uh, is an interesting kind of word in that the middle class has never really accepted it and approved it. They use it like, crazy but it's not really okay. It's still a rude, dirty, old kind of gushy word. (laughter) They don't like that, but they say it, like, they say it like, a lady now in a middle-class home, you'll hear most of the time she says it as an expletive, you know, it's out of her mouth before she knows. She says, Oh shit oh shit, (laughter) oh shit. If she drops something, Oh, the shit hurt the broccoli. Shit."

I also loved his language consciousness. He did an entire routine on what he called "soft language" that's worthy of George Orwell's 1984 (see sidebar). You can see it here. He's so un-PC that it's wonderful, fearlessly pointing out that those nice comfortable words like "pre-owned" have simpler meanings, like "used": "It's getting so bad now that any day I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an 'unwilling sperm recipient.'" Language like this doesn't just distort truth, it's us bullshitting ourselves. Carlin had the same horror of  of euphemism that I do. In this routine, in fact, he rails against the use of the terms "pass away" and "expire" ("like a magazine subscription") for "died."

And now that he has, the language police have won a little victory.

[Cross posted at Spawn of Blogorrhea]


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