Profanity on U.S. TV

Jason F. Siegel siegeljf at
Sun May 3 06:27:19 UTC 2009




May 3, 2009

Op-Ed Contributor

Gentlemen Cows in Prime Time 


LAST Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the Federal Communications
Commission's crackdown on the use of dirty words on the airwaves.

That the justices managed to do this without actually uttering either of the
words at issue - one refers to a sexual act, the other to a bodily function
- exemplifies both the court's tact and its lack of connection with
contemporary English usage. 

The case, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations, was
a test of the commission's zero-tolerance policy toward isolated curses, or
"fleeting expletives," as the F.C.C. calls them. The commission put in place
the so-called Bono Rule, named for the U2 singer (and contributing columnist
for this page) who used an expletive during an NBC broadcast of the Golden
Globe Awards in 2003. That same year, Fox Television broadcast a routine by
Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in which both the vulgarities considered by
the court were used.

In response to these incidents, in which children of tender years were
doubtless exposed to salty language, the F.C.C. decided that prime-time TV
must be sodium-free, as it were. Departing from a 30-year policy of going
after only repetitive usage of swear words, the Bono Rule gave the F.C.C.
the power to punish a single utterance of a vulgarity. 

In 2007, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in
Manhattan, struck down the Bono Rule, holding that it had no rational basis.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. Writing for the majority last week, Justice
Antonin Scalia stated that it was "entirely rational" for the F.C.C. to
conclude, as it did, that one particular curse "invariably invokes a coarse
sexual image." 

Does it? The evidence is mixed. Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the
Oxford English Dictionary and the author of a book on swearing, described
the F.C.C.'s argument as "rubbish." Although the word in question originally
referred to a sexual act, Mr. Sheidlower argued, it has now taken on an
independent "emotional" sense. The nonsexual use of the word can be seen in
countless contemporary examples, as when Vice President Dick Cheney used it
in 2004 to recommend that Senator Patrick Leahy do something that is,
strictly speaking, anatomically impossible.

The counterargument is that the very power of the word as a nonliteral
intensifier derives from its underlying sexual meaning. Or, as Ruth Wajnryb,
an Australian linguist, explained in her book "Expletive Deleted," the word
is taboo "because of its referential function." 

Ultimately, the Fox Television case raises a dichotomy well known to
linguists: descriptivism versus prescriptivism - that is, whether to yield
to the reality of how language is actually used (descriptivism) or fight to
maintain objective standards (prescriptivism). Descriptivists happily accept
"impact" as a verb and "my bad" as a form of apology; prescriptivists resist
such innovations. 

At oral argument, Fox's lawyer urged a descriptivist approach, arguing that
the common slang term for sexual intercourse is no longer indecent because
Americans "are significantly more tolerant" of the word than they were when
the high court first upheld the F.C.C.'s multiple-expletive rule in a 1978
case involving the comedian George Carlin's "filthy words" monologue (F.C.C.
v. Pacifica Foundation). After all, we live in an age, for better or worse,
when children are exposed to profanity on cable and satellite TV and the
Internet. Justice Scalia, however, insisted that the proliferation of swear
words made the prescriptivist case all the more urgent: parents should be
able to consider broadcast TV a "relatively safe haven" for children. 

As much as one sympathizes with language prescriptivism in general (please,
let us all resist "c u l8r"), censorship is necessarily a descriptivist
endeavor. Indecency laws are tied to evolving community standards. In 1623,
the English Parliament passed legislation to prohibit "profane swearing and
cursing." Under that law, people could be fined for uttering oaths like
"upon my life" or "on my troth." In the Victorian era, the word "bull" was
considered too strong for mixed company; instead, one referred to "gentlemen
cows." Times change, notwithstanding the fervent wishes of prescriptivists
to keep dirty words dirty. 

The F.C.C. may have won this round, but the bluenoses can't declare victory
just yet. The next test of the F.C.C.'s regime will come soon enough, as the
Supreme Court has agreed to review the commission's $550,000 fine against
CBS for a nine-sixteenths-of-a-second exposure of Janet Jackson's breast
during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Perhaps the F.C.C.'s
disproportionate response to that incident will be recognized for what it
was: a regulatory malfunction. 

Adam Freedman, a lawyer, is the author of "The Party of the First Part: The
Curious World of Legalese." 


Jason F. Siegel

Ph.D. Student, Linguistics & French Linguistics

Department of French & Italian

Ballantine Hall 642

1020 East Kirkwood Avenue

Indiana University

Bloomington, IN 47405-7103


siegeljf at


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