I originally gave this speech in 2003.
What ever happened to George Carlin’s “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television”? Well, you can say them on television, as well as depict in full anatomical detail every nuance those words represent. That’s a shame, really, because I love those words — and those words are in danger unless we do something to save them.
You might be wondering why those words could be in danger and even if they’re worth saving.
You have to admit that there are times that only certain words will do. Imagine that you’re hammering a nail. Whack. Whack. Smash! I bet even Donny Osmond couldn’t resist letting out a few hastily chosen words.
We have seen these words artfully used. Steve Martin, in his bunny ears and arrow-through-the-head days, could slip in a swear word just one time and have you rolling on the floor.
And that’s where the problem began. You have comics say, “Well, if Steve Martin can use that word once and get a laugh, I can use it 250 times, and get 250 times the laughs.”
Profanity doesn’t work that way. Those seven words are verbal habanero pepper sauce. Put just a tiny drop on your eggs, and you’ll say, “Hmmm. That has some kick.” Pour in the whole bottle. Arrrrrgh! And you want to swear to express your pain, but you can’t because your tongue has evaporated from your mouth.
Or worst, the nerves in the insides of your mouth will be deadened so that you can’t taste anything at all. You listen to some of these standup comics or rappers who use swear words like some speakers use ah’s and um’s. They sound like the teacher in the Peanuts specials, “Bwwwah, bwah, bwah. Bwwwah, bwah, bwah.”
Do you know what will happen to swear words if this situation continues? They will turn into “ain’t.” Remember when “ain’t” was the worst thing you could say. If you used it in class, your teacher would bristle, “‘Ain’t’ ain’t in the dictionary!” Well, now it is. And teachers use it. Nobody cares about ain’t anymore. “Ain’t” ain’t cool.
So that’s why we need to save the seven words you can’t say on television. There are two things we can do.
First, we need to stop using them so much. We know from economics that the more scarce something is, the more valuable it becomes. You only need to use them a few times to get your point across.
In fact, you’ll find that you don’t need those words at all. In World War II, General Anthony McAuliffe lead his troops in the Battle of the Bulge when they found themselves surrounded by the Germans. The German commander asked him to surrender. If Osama bin Laden asked me to surrender, I can think of a certain two-word reply. But, General McAuliffe needed only one word: “Nuts!” It got the message across, it struck the right tone, it didn’t need profanity, and he used half the words.
Second, we need to make these words dirty again. That is what gives these words their power. They’re forbidden, taboo. They are not suitable for use in businesses, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, Toastmasters meetings, and Grandma Toby’s dinner parties.
We need to impress upon kids that these words are unacceptable. I think we did a good job teaching our kids. In fact, my daughter is so good that she rats on everyone else. “Daddy! Do you know what Jason said in school today! He said <whisper>the f-word</whisper>.” Well, sometimes, she insists on spelling it out. And sometimes, she says, “Daddy! Do you know what that word means!” Yes, yes! I know! I know!
So, we need to save the seven words you can’t say on television. It would help if they stopped saying those words on television, but there are two things we can do. We can stop using them so much. We can teach people that these words are vulgar. Then, we can save those words for when we truly need them: Whack. Whack. Smash!