Civil Liberties

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