What makes a word dirty?

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It’s a good question, one that the US government can’t seem to answer. At least with much consistency. I rode down to San Marcos today to see my rent house — a vestige of my vainglorious attempt at entering the Texas State MFA writing program — and listened to On the Media en route. A fascinating interview popped up between OTM host Bob Garfield and FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. Here’s a transcript of one segment of the interview; the full transcript is available at the OTM Web site:

BOB GARFIELD: I want to talk to you about the word “bullshit.” Now, this is commonly used to convey skepticism. But the Commission found it to be explicitly excretory, and therefore indecent, whereas “dickhead” as an insult is okay. But where I come from, “bullshit” is, you know, pretty much kids’ stuff, and “dickhead” is pretty darned insulting. All of which is to finally ask, I guess, how do you go about finding standards on this stuff? It just seems to me so arbitrary.

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: Well, are you actually going to air that, or are you going to edit that out [LAUGHS] because–

BOB GARFIELD: It depends. Are you on duty? [LAUGHTER]

JONATHAN ADELSTEIN: My colleagues may have an issue with it. To me, it’s something that does defy a little bit the imagination. I understand why parents don’t want that heard over the airwaves, but our rules require that words that are banned are either sexual or excretory. And I think in common usage that word is not really one that is excretory. So we made quite a stretch to say that it’s inherently so, and I think it’s something that is probably going to be challenged in court.

What makes a word dirty seems to be in the mind of the reader or listener, with some exceptions. Which? Well, there’s the F-bomb (I’m being delicate here, for a reason I’ll point out in a minute); also, as they say in the movie Bull Durham, “He called him a certain name that’s an absolute no-no with umpires.” (Rent the movie to figure that one out.)

I showed some restraint in that paragraph above to make a point I heard from Steven Bochco, creator of NYPD Blue and other cop classics. OTM interviewed him right after the FCC commish, and Bochco said the choice to use a profanity, or nudity, is always just that: a choice, made by an artist or creator. The only time he said he’s ever regretted going blue

is simply because, for one reason or another, the execution wasn’t good enough. You know, did we contextualize the moment sufficiently to make it appropriate?

My context has been to discuss whether a word can be dirty, not to name the ones which are and express frustration and my character’s lack of restraint.

Choosing profanity, profane behavior or anything on that end of the meter titillatinging, lascivious, lewd, obscene, graphic, explicit — that’s something between a writer and the muse. Most important, it seems, is to decide how the character will express himself.

And oh yeah, write off the Christian publishers for your novel if the F-bomb is part of your character’s arsenal. We’re now in the era when the FCC is levying multi-million-dollar fines against prime-time broadcast network TV shows.

Speaking profanity, however, is less powerful than reading it, according to The Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction:

Even foul-mouthed characters appear to overuse swear words when they are written down. A couple of well-chosen profanities work much better than a string of four-letter wonders, bringing all the flavor of X-rated speech without overdoing it.

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