The Cunning Linguist

Remembering George Carlin's literary genius

Every obituary for George Carlin will cite his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV" routine in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. The monologue led to Carlin's arrest and a 1978 Supreme Court obscenity case. (Carlin admitted that he was "perversely...proud of" the federal legal drama that his dirty words caused.)

But Carlin's comedy was not simply about dirty words; it was about the English language, and our collective fear of it. He used more expletives than Howard Stern, but his obsession was linguistics, not lasciviousness. As Carlin told CNN in 2004, "[I]f I hadn't chosen the career of being a performer, I think linguistics would have been a natural area that I'd have loved-to teach it, probably...Language has always fascinated me."

He was especially fascinated with the blunting of language for comfort's sake. Carlin ridiculed our watering-down of sexual descriptions and ethnic categories, not to mention our mourning clichés, all of which he believed were the real-life manifestations of George Orwell's "Newspeak," utilized to obscure reality, numb the mind, and discourage criticism. As much as Carlin loathed theology, war, greed, and hypersensitivity, he was most disgusted when religous puritans, the military, corporations, and P.C. "classroom liberals" mangled the language for the purpose of soothing the masses. When I saw Carlin perform in the ‘90s, the biggest laugh of the night came from his observation that "the unlikely event of a water landing," discussed in every preflight safety lecture, sounds suspiciously like "crashing into the fucking ocean."

In fact, Carlin was disgusted with the mangling of English for any reason. He hated anyone who pronounced forte as "for-tay," insisted that "no comment is a comment," and advised us that "unique needs no modifier; very unique, quite unique, more unique, real unique, fairly unique, and extremely unique are wrong and they mark you as dumb, although certainly not unique." For all of his lifelong ranting against conservatism, Carlin was a diehard traditionalist when it came to grammar and vocabulary.

This mastery of the language allowed Carlin to craft his puns ("Soft rock music isn't rock, and it ain't music...it's just soft," "I thought it would be nice to get a job at a duty-free shop, but it doesn't sound like there's a whole lot to do in a place like that"), but also gave him the ability to see how we pad our existences with pleasant lies. In Carlin's mind, language should not be safe, and neither should life. Children, he argued in his final HBO special, this year's It's Bad for Ya, should play with sticks, not have "play dates" under the ever-watchful eyes of overprotective, micro-managing parents. (He had previously complained, with his trademark growl, "We've taken all the fun out of childhood just in the interest of saving a few lives.")

Near the end of his career, Carlin was more bitter than funny—It's Bad for Ya is a righteous tirade that provokes more nods than laughs—but he never lost his unparalleled ability to play with words. He deconstructed the phrases that we use absentmindedly, exposing our hypocrisies—and our human condition—in the process. He was a comic genius because he was a linguistic master. As Carlin said in his most famous routine: "I thank you for hearing my words... They're my work, they're my play, they're my passion. Words are all we have, really."

Marty Beckerman is the author of Dumbocracy, which will be released this September. His website is www.MartyBeckerman.com

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    It was his GIMMICK!

  • anon||

    Paraphrasing a favorite Carlin example:

    What was "ShellShock" in WW1 became "Combat Fatigue" in WW2 to "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" by Vietnam. And they all mean the same thing.

  • ||

    He was especially fascinated with the blunting of language for comfort's sake. Carlin ridiculed our watering-down of sexual descriptions and ethnic categories, not to mention our mourning clichés, all of which he believed were the real-life manifestations of George Orwell's "Newspeak," utilized to obscure reality, numb the mind, and discourage criticism.

    Will nobody stand up for comfort's sake?

    What is wrong with making it a little easier to live on the same planet with other human beings who we may or may not want to stand in close proximity to if they just said everything that was on their shallow little minds?

  • ||

    Every obituary for George Carlin will cite his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV" routine in the first sentence, if not the first paragraph.

    If you switch "sentence" with "paragraph" that would be the perfect opening sentence. What follows will probably remain amongst the best of Carlin's obits.

  • Elemenope||

    In Carlin's mind, language should not be safe, and neither should life.

    Indeed.

    What is wrong with making it a little easier to live on the same planet with other human beings who we may or may not want to stand in close proximity to if they just said everything that was on their shallow little minds?

    Um, huh? I'm having a little trouble parsing this one.

  • Guy Montag||

    The late George Carlin was frequently denounced for his foul language.

    Much of that denouncement, of course, was nonsensical. However, something worse, and pretty annoying, was all of the foulks who would attempt to mimick his style, or even just curse for the sake of cursing and use Mr. Carlin as their excuse.

  • Elemenope||

    However, something worse, and pretty annoying, was all of the folks who would attempt to mimic his style, or even just curse for the sake of cursing and use Mr. Carlin as their excuse.

    Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

    It is also, strictly speaking, fucking annoying.

  • Guy Montag||

    You know, he could have actually run out of material (I know, impossible to imagine) and he is borrowing from Andy Kaufman for a bit?

  • Rhywun||

    What is wrong with making it a little easier to live on the same planet with other human beings who we may or may not want to stand in close proximity to if they just said everything that was on their shallow little minds?



    For example, we're not "occupying" Iraq, we're "liberating" it. I see what you mean; I feel better already.

  • No Name Guy||

    Its not an escalation, its a "surge".

  • Phlebus||

    Nicely written obit.

    More than anything, Carlin was a truth teller. As he has been saying as of late, "being an American just insures your front-row seat at the 3-ring circus".

    As in Shakespeare, the court jester is always the only one in on the "truth".

  • ||

    If Carlin had known that his passing would result in millions of people saying or writing "Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, mother fucker, AND tits", he'd have been very pleased, I think.

  • ||

    To me, Carlin was a more interesting character than Russert. However, seems like only brown-nose, statist hacks get the 10-day eulogies, whereas sharp-minded, witty critics of the Establishment only get a passing though or mention in the Morning News.

  • ||

    Didn't Carlin once make the observation that we drive on parkways and park on driveways?

  • ||

    How about "no stems, no sticks, no seeds that you don't need, Alcapulco Gold is (inhale and exhale) BAD ASS WEED?"

  • ||

    I remember seeing an old Carlin album, from his pre-hippie days, in a used bookstore. The cover was all photos of him in one of those old photo booths that used to be everywhere, maybe 25 photos of him mugging it up. Absolutely hilarious, I should have bought it.

    Makes me wonder if he wouldn't have made a great silent movie comedian, had fate brought him into the world back then.

  • Jamie||

    "What was "ShellShock" in WW1 became "Combat Fatigue" in WW2 to "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" by Vietnam. And they all mean the same thing."

    This probably isn't the best example since in terms of psychology he was actually wrong about this; referring to it as caused by traumatic stress rather than something specifically combat related isn't "PC madness", it's based on recognising that it appears in more situations than was previously thought. For example, sexual abuse survivors.

  • ||

    Best obit I have read today! Carlin's eloquence, if it could be called that, was one of my favorite things about his schtick. By way of example, Lewis Black has the same vitriol and the insight into the human condition but is still unable to deconstruct the language around it with anywhere near the precision that Carlin did.

    If there is an afterlife, may Carlin be making the most of it.

  • No Name Guy||

    Kwix, Lewis Black stopped being funny around 2006 or so. Hes gotten too shrill and bitter.

    Maybe he will be funny again once Bush leaves office.

  • Adam Cox||

    liberty mike: "Didn't Carlin once make the observation that we drive on parkways and park on driveways?"

    That was Gallagher.

    Anyway, for me personally I feel as though America has lost one of it's greats.

  • ||

    I feel as though America has lost one of it's greats.

    Gallagher's dead, too?!?

  • ||

    Jamie,
    I don't know if you are familiar with the "shell shock" piece, but his statement wasn't that it was "PC Madness". Rather, in the context of war related mental illness, the changing of the words changed the reception and feeling the general public had towards it.

    Shell Shock - two short but very powerful words that sum up succinctly what happened and how. The alliteration further reinforces the "bam-bam" feeling of the phrase. You almost feel the numbness in those words.

    Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - Four mealy mouthed words of which none relate to either the mental condition or the method of contraction. Additionally, this can be shortened to PTSD, an abbreviation that further removes one from empathizing with the sufferer of the condition.

    It's not PC, rather a redefining of a singular condition to encompass a broad range of psychological disorders. Still, it reduces the effectiveness of the phrase.

  • ||

    BTW,
    Am I the only one, and I think I might be, that the first time he heard 'Seven Naughty Words' first response was "If you can't say 'fuck' it goes without saying you can't say 'motherfucker', that's only six words."

  • ||

    I worship the Sun, but I pray to Joe Pesci, because Joe Pesci gets shit done.

  • Brad||

    Guy: Doug Stanhope does a good bit on running out of material in his HBO (or is it SHO) standup thing that was on last year. The entire standup is brilliant though (now on DVD I believe), which surprised the shit out of me since I thought he was retarded based on what I'd seen before.

    As for Carlin, I though he was getting kinda cunty and unfunny at the end, but what he brought to comedy and how he changed it is undeniable. I'd say he'd be missed, but I've been missing him for about twenty years.

  • Guy Montag||

    Why are so many of you picking on the womyn? There needs o be a federal investigation of this board . . .

  • Russ 2000||

    Am I the only one, and I think I might be, that the first time he heard 'Seven Naughty Words' first response was "If you can't say 'fuck' it goes without saying you can't say 'motherfucker', that's only six words."

    Even the writer knew it was repeated:

    http://www.georgecarlin.com/dirty/dirty.html



    And please don't forget fart, turd, and twat

  • ||

    Gallagher's dead? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

  • ||

    What strikes me from the limited examples given here is how often Carlin, for all his vaunted love of language, was wrong. I don't think "shell shock" and "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" are the same thing. Shell shock was an acute stress reaction that occurred at and around the time of the incident that caused it; the point of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was that people were suffering the effects of combat months and years after they were away from the fighting. "Unique" has had widely recognized a meaning beyond "one-of-a-kind" for decades. Merriam Webster online gives a line J.D Sallinger as an example of that usage--did Carlin think he was "dumb."

    Carlin was a better comedian that he was a linguist.

  • Waquoit||

    "Am I the only one, and I think I might be, that the first time he heard 'Seven Naughty Words' first response was "If you can't say 'fuck' it goes without saying you can't say 'motherfucker', that's only six words."

    Carlin mentioned that very same thing on his next album. He also added turd, fart and twat to the list.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    Gallagher's dead? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

    Pro Libertate wins the thread by doing the blogger's equivalent of "breaking through the fourth wall" in theater. He widened the entire post page with his one extremely long word. The wordsmith Carlin is smiling down from the black nothingness after death he believed in. Bravo!

  • ||

    George Carlin was one of the most overrated comics in the history of comedy. He's like Dane Cook for grown-ups.

    There I said it.

  • ||

    Although I certainly didn't agree with everything he said (some of it was outright flaming liberal), I always admired his ability to prick (no pun intended) holes in society's comfortably blissful ignorance.

    By the way, if you don't recognize the nom de plume, you are not authorized to discuss his work.

  • stephen||

    Zero-
    Fine say what you wish. However it is contemporaries in a field who ultimately decide the fate of a deceased colleague. You could think ted williams is over-rated too but his contemporaries would easily 100% disagree with you.
    I don't think there is a stand up comic today who is not mourning and many would probably cuff you in the back of the head for that statement.

    When it comes down to it I'll take nearly every living stand up comedians opinion to yours any day. They seem much more qualified. Though you are free to it.

  • ||

    well.. everyone has his favorite carlin's..:

    "And I think people have a lot of nerve locking up a tiger and charging four dollars to let a few thousand worthless humans shuffle past him every day. What a shi**y thing to do. Humans must easily be the meanest species on Earth. Probably the only reason there are any tigers left is because they don't taste good."

    "Eating meat is one thing, but this whole beef-rancher-manure-cattle-hamburger side show is a different skillet of sh** altogether. Each year, Americans eat 38 billion hamburgers. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of red meat. Cattle consume one half of all the fresh water consumed on Earth. If Americans reduced their meat intake by just 10%..."

  • ||

    Brian,

    I saw the horizontal distortion in preview and decided not to fix it. Maybe Carlin's middle finger was extending through me, for one fleeting instant.

  • ||

    And through you, since you repeated the violation of bloggiquette.

  • ||

    He hated anyone who pronounced forte as "for-tay,

    I don't get this one. Is he saying we should pronounce it "fort" or just not use it at all?

  • hooter_mcboob||

    :::And please don't forget fart, turd, and twat:::


    How could anyone forget twat?

  • ||

    There are two different fortes. The one that is used most commonly should be pronounced "fort" but, of course, it isn't. It's been so widely mispronounced for so long that both pronunciations are now generally accepted (if anything, the wrong one is now "correct"). I think the words have different derivations--one is French, the other Italian.

  • ||

    forte (fôr'tā', fôrt, fōrt)
    n.
    1. Something in which a person excels.
    2. The strong part of a sword blade, between the middle and the hilt.

    USAGE NOTE
    The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôr'tā'), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation. The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.

    forte (fôr'tā')
    adv. & adj. (Abbr. f)
    In a loud, forceful manner. Used chiefly as a direction.
    n.
    A note, passage, or chord played forte.

  • ||

    From Brain Droppings, regarding forte, pronunciation and such:

    "The English word forte, meaning "specialty" or "strong point," is not pronounced "for-tay." Got that? It is pronounced "fort." The Italian word forte, used in music notation, is pronounced "for-tay," and it instructs the musician to play loud: "She plays the skin flute, and her forte [fort] is playing forte [for-tay]." Look it up. And don't give me that whiny shit, "For-tay is listed as the second preference." There's a reason it's second: because it's not first!"

    "And if you say popular usage has changed that, I say, fuck popular usage!"

    The guy upthread who compared him to Dane Cook ought to be sterilized.

  • Geoff Nathan||

    And I'm a real linguist, and I thought Carlin was fabulous (he had a real ear for language, and seemed to have actually learned something about it, although his 'bilabial fricative' routine was actually about the 'bilabial trill', but hey, close enough.)
    On the other hand, his occasional prejudices, such as the 'right' way to pronounce 'forte', like the 'right' way to pronounce 'economics' (i.e. with 'eh' or 'ee') are just that--simple prejudices based on nothing at all. The fact that some pronunciation is closer to the lending language is totally meaningless. We don't condemn folks for not saying 'Pa-ree', nor do we sneer at them for saying 'Dee-troyt' and not 'day-twah', so why should we object to 'for-tay'? It's simple--we just have a gut feeling based on nothing at all. And don't give me that shit about being clear--the two words ('play it forte' and 'this is my forte' are so different in context that there's no danger at all of their being confused.
    Language fascists like this are simply imposing their gut prejudices--they are not based on facts (popular usage constitutes the relevant fact), and etymology is no guide to correct pronunciation, else we would still be speaking Old English, or Old French (for the forty percent or so of modern English words borrowed from Old French).
    Language mavens are just bigots with no logic, history or linguistic knowledge on their side. But they have loud voices.
    On the other hand, I'm going to miss Carlin, who mostly noticed the real bad stuff, like euphemism to hide evil....

  • Nicholas P. Ogelthorpe||

    I think that the reason all of the big news organizations are leading with the "Seven Dirty Words" reference is because:

    A) That bit is his most infamous, widely known across all demographics

    B) It reduces, in their eyes, the importance of the rest of his work by labeling him "a potty mouth."

    Carlin was a loud, gravely voice against "The Establishment," and it's not surprising that they're a little scared of what he had to say.
    So, they want to make it seem like he was merely "the dirty guy" and everything else he has done is probably just as vulgar.

    Of course, anyone who has read Brain Droppings knows that this couldn't be further from the truth.

    I was definitely sadder to hear about G.C. "passing on" than about Tim Russert. I wish they could have both lived on forever, but your human bodies just break down too easily.

    Not us Gremlins. We live forever.

  • Lajaw||

    Carlin was a potty mouth deluxe. I don't see how anyone could enjoy his filth. He used the "F" word to show his lack of intellect, as many do in this day. It is still cussin' and it ain't ok. Good riddance George.

  • Thomas the Train||

    RIP Old friend. You will be Missed.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    "Carlin was a potty mouth deluxe. I don't see how anyone could enjoy his filth. He used the "F" word to show his lack of intellect, as many do in this day. It is still cussin' and it ain't ok. Good riddance George."


    I seriously hope that this wasn't a serious post... I mean... has anyone missed the point of someone's life-work ANY more than that??

    Carlin was a potty mouth deluxe - and that showed his intellect to an immense degree. But I guess according to Lajaw here, it's the words and *not* the message that matter... hmm.

    Apparently all subtext is over his head.

  • ||

    Linguitics and languages are my forte as well.

    I've used George Carlin in the classroom as a teaching tool many times, his routines stick that PC crap in students' heads and teach new phrases and idioms like nothing else.

    His way of bringing language to life was unique and insightful.

    This killed my day to find out he's gone. You'll be missed.

  • ||

    a coarse man who delighted in pouring salt in the veins of propriety through monotonous monologues. did he have a right to his precious seven? of course he did. was it entertaining? i think not.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement