A Dirty Words Innovation Problem?
David Pescovitz at boingboing had a fun post yesterday about an auction of an 1898 baseball document that sets out “special instructions to players” regarding foul language to be avoided during games. As the recent story in the New York Times about fan behavior at Jets games reminds us, sporting events aren’t always the most family-friendly events.
But that isn’t the issue of interest. Instead, read the instructions and focus on dirty words and quickly count how many of George Carlin’s famous seven words you see. What will become clear immediately is that we are suffering from a serious deficit in dirty-words innovation. We have split the atom, put a man on the moon and now are sorting through the genome, but we are still stuck with the same $!@$# words that baseball players were using more than a century ago. Perhaps foul language is like classical music: we came up with all of the really good ones a long time ago, and now we are just condemned to repeating, combining and permuting.
Fun and games to be sure, but this matters more as we turn to the First Amendment and communications policy. In truth, it isn’t clear that new dirty words would help us. Having an agreed upon set of forbidden words may be arbitrary—that was George Carlin’s point after all in the monologue considered in 1978 in Pacifica—but is also useful in helping us sort through what can and can’t be broadcast over the airwaves. If Bono’s “fucking brilliant” is enough to throw the FCC for a loop—and read the Second Circuit’s divided June opinion reversing the FCC to get a sense of this—it is hard to know what we would do with a bunch of new, really bad words.