The Cunning Linguist
George Carlin's literary genius
When George Carlin died in June at age 71, almost every obituary cited the comedian's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" routine in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. The monologue led to a 1972 arrest in Milwaukee on obscenity charges (later dismissed). More famously, it led to a 1978 ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the Federal Communications Commission's authority to punish broadcasters for airing "indecent" material. Carlin once admitted that he was "perversely…proud" of the federal legal drama that his dirty words caused.
But George Carlin's comedy was not simply about dirty words. It was about the English language and our collective fear of it. The man used more expletives than Howard Stern,but his obsession was linguistics, not lasciviousness. As Carlin told CNN in 2004, "If 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."
Carlin was especially fascinated with the ways we blunt our language for the sake of our comfort. He despised our watered-down sexual descriptions and ethnic categories, and hated the delicate euphemisms we use when speaking about aging and death. Such terms, he believed, were real-life manifestations of George Orwell's Newspeak, words and phrases intended to obscure reality, numb the mind, and discourage criticism. "By and large," he once said, "language is a tool for concealing the truth."
As much as Carlin loathed theology, war, greed, and hypersensitivity, he was most disgusted when religious puritans, the military, corporations, and politically correct "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 ridiculed clichés. ("You will not hear me say 'bottom line,' 'game plan,' 'role model,' 'scenario,' or 'hopefully,' " he declared in 1990. "I will not 'kick back,' 'mellow out,' or 'be on a roll'! I will not 'go for it,' and I will not 'check it out.' I don't even know what 'it' is!") 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, George Carlin was a diehard traditionalist when it came to grammar and vocabulary.
Carlin's command of the English language allowed him to craft his puns ("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") and other linguistic jibes ("Soft rock music isn't rock, and it ain't music-it's just soft"). But it fed into his social criticism as well, by giving him the ability to show us the ways we cushion our lives with pleasant lies.
In Carlin's mind, neither language nor life should be safe. Children should play with sticks, he argued in his final HBO special, this year's It's Bad for Ya; they should 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.
Until the end he deconstructed the phrases that we use absent-mindedly, 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: Adventures with the Loony Left, the Rabid Right, and Other American Idiots (Disinformation). His website is martybeckerman.com.