Forbidden Words and the CDC

Jerry Harp
December 17, 2017
Comments 2

Remember when the forbidden words were George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”? They were—and are!—fun to say, and they come trippingly off the tongue: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Actually, before Carlin’s monologue, there was no official FCC list, though the routine led to some litigation, the results of which remain ambiguous. Even Carlin himself, who reasonably opposed the segregation of these words from the rest of the English language, said he wasn’t completely insensitive to people’s feelings about, for example, “motherfucker”; as he said, there’s a lot going on in that word.


But the new list of seven words, just out from the Trump administration and applying to budgetary documents by the Centers for Disease Control, makes even less sense: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. To begin with, it lacks the rhythmic panache of the old one; it’s difficult to say and more difficult to understand. The old list looks like the compiled phobias of someone afraid of sex and what I once saw squeamishly described as “functions of the toilet.” I guess it’s understandable enough that people want to keep those things private, though there’s more to it than that. The etymologies of some of these words are fairly obscure, though they are, on the whole, Anglo-Saxon, meaning that they are “vulgar” in two senses.


The basic story goes more or less like this. When the Norman French, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, the language of the new regime was the language of the victors, and therefore the language of the upper classes. If you wanted to travel in the upper echelons of society, you had to speak French. Anglo-Saxon was for the commoners, the defeated, the lower classes. Thus, Anglo-Saxon became “vulgar” in the sense of pertaining to the common people. By a kind of historical drift, certain words of this language became “vulgar” in the extended sense of dirty or obscene. The distinction has to do with class. Vulgar people piss; members of polite society urinate. The lower classes fuck; the upper classes copulate.


But the Trump list of seven words looks much like an aversion to differences from a commonplace hetero norm (for example, “diversity” and “transgender”) and fear of statements that dare adhere to recognizable protocols of reason (see “evidence-based” and “science-based”). Whatever the motives behind this regulation, it’s an odd thing at best to enshrine these language restrictions in government regulation. I thought it was 2017, but my calendar seems to be 33 years fast.

2 thoughts on “Forbidden Words and the CDC

    • Thank you. Carlin has been an important influence. Luckily, when I was growing up, both of my parents worked, so I could listen to my George Carlin records after school before Mom and Dad got home.

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