Untabooing, maintaining the taboo

I was struck recently about the delicate lines drawn around some taboo vocabulary in the media, in particular on television shows. On the series Charmed (on the WB network from 1998-2006, now endlessly in re-runs on TNT), displaced, non-literal uses of various words are fine:

“pronominal” X’s ass: Get your ass over here! ‘Get over here!’

piss(ed) off referring to anger: I think you pissed it off.

derogatory suck: That sucks. ‘That’s very bad.’

exclamatory crap: Oh, crap! ‘Oh, dammit!’

I’m not sure about the limits on ass; I don’t at the moment have examples of ass ‘buttocks’ on the show (butt seems to be the preferred word), but asshole is out in any of its senses. As is piss ‘urinate’, sexual suck, and crap ‘feces’.

But some words — fuck and shit, in parrticular — count as intrinsically offensive (to some people), no matter what the context or how displaced the use. So dismissive fuck (Oh, fuck the penguin! ‘To hell with the penguin!’, Oh, fuck it! ‘To hell with it; I give up’) and intensifier fuckin(g) (That’s fuckin’ unbelievable!) are just out, as are exclamatory horseshit and bullshit.

So we get former Senator Chris Dodd, now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (which, among other things, gives out ratings for films), responding to Andrew Goldman in the New York Times Magazine on April 24:

[Goldman] Still, you watch “The King’s Speech,” and you think, This is very educational. You think, I’d want 13-year-olds to see this. Yet it was given an R rating because of F- words. Was that a bad call? 
[Dodd] They had the right call. If you’re looking for perfection, that isn’t going to happen. But there’s a standard, and they drew the conclusion based on that. Of course, my good friend Harvey Weinstein raised holy hell about it and probably raised the profile of the movie. Harvey is a master of that, as he is a master filmmaker.

Standards must be maintained! The children must be protected!

7 Responses to “Untabooing, maintaining the taboo”

  1. Paul Says:

    Reminds me of Harmful To Minors ( http://www.amazon.com/Harmful-Minors-Perils-Protecting-Children/dp/0816640068 )

    Limiting access to things on TV when they’re part of everyday life seems silly at best and down right stupid at worst.

    It seems particularly odd that violence is ok (you have to get quite graphic to get and R rating) but “offensive” language (as adjudicated by people who don’t seem to be in touch with the day to day lives of the general populace) and sex (a popular past time with most adults and a not insignificant number of teenagers) are not.

  2. Tenderfoot Says:

    I’m fascinated by the inconsistency in what’s taboo on cable. On FX, for example, it’s okay to say “shit” but not “fuck.” Most other channels don’t even go that far. And if you watch with the captions turned on, you hear “shit” on AMC, but read “s—.” In fact, the captioning on AMC also extends to “h—” and “d—” for “hell” and “damn.”

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Avery Andrews on Facebook:

    The aussies have gotten around the f-bomb taboo by using the word ‘stuff’ for most of the nonliteral meanings, but not the core one: get stuffed, it’s stuffed, you stuffed it up (but not ‘stuff you’, also not ‘stuff off’ for some reason). Everyone knows what it means, but it doesn’t really mean that. An interesting phenomenon.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I discover that the aussie sense of stuff isn’t in Sheidlower’s monument of vernacular lexicography, The F Word (3rd ed.). But it should be.

      I do know get stuffed from vernacular British English, in both non-literal and literal uses. Literally: working-class English man to me in the gay baths, some 30 years ago: “Do you fancy getting stuffed?” (gay Americans were stereotyped as extraordinarily sexy, specifically as wildly enthusiastic for getting fucked).

      • Jesse Sheidlower Says:

        But _The F-Word_ explicitly (n.p.i.) does not include synonyms or euphemisms for “fuck”, unless they bear some phonetic resemblance to “fuck”. To open the book up to every euphemism would be to vastly increase the size, for unclear benefit.

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        To Jesse: I take back “it should be”. I wonder if there would be a market for a scholarly lexicon of replacement/avoidance expressions for “fuck”. Sort of “The Non-F-Word”.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Because no child has ever heard those words, particularly not in a situation where they were explicitly labeled as offensive words.

    One of my father’s friends actually told us when we said we were going to see it that he hadn’t been able to tell why it was R…

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