Putting the F-Word on Trial

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Adam Liptak had an amusing article in The New York Times this weekend setting the stage for tomorrow's Supreme Court oral arguments in Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations. At issue in the case is whether the accidental live broadcast of such unspeakable words as fuck and shit violates federal indecency laws prohibiting material that "depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs." Here's Liptak:

Thus, when the pop star Bono emphasized his glee at receiving a Golden Globe award in 2003 by saying his victory was "really, really"—insert a form of the word here—"brilliant," the commission contended there was a sexual element. So too when Cher, on another awards show, used the word to propose something that ought to be done to her critics.

And there was sex in the air, the commission said, when Nicole Richie, at a third awards show, veered from these scripted comments: "Have you ever tried to get cow manure out of a Prada purse? It's not so freaking simple." Ms. Richie did not say "manure," and she did not say "freaking."

Bono, Cher and Ms. Richie all made sexual references, and all were indecent, the commission says. "It hardly seems debatable," the commission wrote in 2006, "that the word's power to 'intensify' and offend derives from its implicit sexual meaning" as "one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit words for sexual activity in the English language."

Sadly, as Liptak notes, the Court rejected C-Span's request for immediate access to the audiofile of the arguments. This means we'll have to wait until sometime next year for the chance of hearing one or more of the justices curse.

Whole thing here.

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  1. Anyone care to defend tax dollars being used in this way?

  2. Hey, as long as you can say fuck on TV, WE”RE A FREE PEOPLE!

  3. You can say “fuck” on TV, but it won’t be heard on TV. So I guess we’re ambiguously free? Semi-free? Quasi-free? Better than not at all, I suppose.

  4. Today (Monday), on Opra: an hour long talk about how to have better sex. It’s legal to talk about sex and excretion on TV all you want as long as you only use words with Greek and Latin roots.

  5. I have never understood the censorship in the first place. The bleep doesn’t stop the imagination from figuring out what was said. In fact, it could be argued it is worse, because it forces the mind to think about it. The only way you don’t know what is being said is if you aren’t old enough to have ever heard those words before, in that case your mind will still not be polluted. Kind of like this picture http://www.frenblog.com/illusion/wp-content/uploads/2006/11/dolphin.jpg
    A young child will only see dolphins swimming while adults will see two people having sex.

  6. I guess you can’t say something sucks, or someone is a scumbag, or the millions of other expressions in our language that ultimately derive from sex and dirty parts of the body either. What’s so special about fuck?

  7. Kaiser, I think the idea is that kids are generally curious about words they haven’t heard before. If they ask what “fuck” means, they will either be told, and thus polluted, or they’ll get a very different reaction from the way adults usually react when they ask what a word means, making them even more curious about it.

    Not that I think keeping the words off of TV and radio is going to help when you hear them in person all the time, but that’s the idea.

  8. obscenities should be censored because that’s how they keep their power. so long as censors do their part and bleep out shit and fuck, they’ll still be fun to say and will actually communicate the emotional emphasis they’re supposed to. otherwise we’d have to invent newer, more debased words.

  9. Taboos conserve the power of prohibited articles. That makes powerful words available with which to express outrage when the occasion warrants it. Accidentally smashing one’s thumb with a hammer shouldn’t leave one in want of a vehicle to express one’s feeling.

    That doesn’t mean I want da gummint helping.

    On the other hand, sheltered individuals are more easily disarmed by such magic spells: A key part of street-self-defense training is desensitizing civilized individuals, especially women, against verbal abuse, which can otherwise help terrorize them into compliance just by choice of vulgar language.

  10. Dammit, Hogan!

  11. fuck you anarch!!

    good point about the self-defense thing – i haven’t thought about that.

  12. I’ve never understood the obscenity exception to the first amendment? Is it basically the legalese way of saying “The First Amendment doesn’t apply to stuff that people find really, really icky?” If so, then what about the revealed preference for entertainment with sex, violence, and cursing?

  13. another example

    thoreau, it’s probably just a case of judicial activism that conservatives find palatable

  14. A teacher-friend told me about a seventh-grade class given a brief course in human sexuality. First thing the teacher did was ask for examples of dirty words to describe anatomy. The kids reacted with disbelief, and, when they were convinced the teacher was serious, reluctantly, with lots of guilty giggles, began volunteering bad words with mounting riotous abandon and nervous relief as they saw permission was truly granted, and in fact that their most hidden treasures were required by the authority in charge to be publicized. They were further shocked to see her start to list the offensive items, in large letters, on the blackboard. As this exercise progressed, the room grew quieter, until they’d exhausted their inventories. Nothing left to giggle about, nothing left to embarrass or be embarrassed about. The lesson commenced – or rather continued – without the distracting baggage.

    Can’t help feeling the kids lost a little something, though.

  15. Dirty underwear, Hogan!

  16. Well, to assert my freedom to say what I want on the internet. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck-fuckity-fuck-fuck-fuck.

  17. Don’t call me fat you fucking Jew!

  18. Eric! Did you just say the f-word?

  19. No, he means “fuck”. You can’t say “fuck” in school you fucking fatass.

  20. @ Cartman: Beget thee, Nation!

  21. I’ve never understood the obscenity exception to the first amendment? Is it basically the legalese way of saying “The First Amendment doesn’t apply to stuff that people find really, really icky?” If so, then what about the revealed preference for entertainment with sex, violence, and cursing?

    Basically. To my knowledge, the Supreme Court has never come up with a principled distinction between “obscenity” and mere “indecency”. The First Amendment is one of those cases where otherwise staunch strict constructionists start read stuff into the Constitution that contradicts it’s plain meaning. And the First Amendment couldn’t be much more plainly written, could it?

    Of course, you have to understand that, at the time it was drafted, the Bill of Rights did not restrict the power of state governments. However, that obviously doesn’t protect content regulation by the FCC.

    Frankly, the FCC could be cut down to size and I wouldn’t mind.

  22. I rally can’t see how a swear word, like “fuck” or “shit” any more “depicts or describes sexual or excretory activities or organs” than any of the nice words that can be used. Based on that standard, isn’t every prime time TV show in violation, as well as all ads for Viagra, diapers, tampons, toilet paper, and probably half of everything else?

  23. The FCC should be little more than a arbitration body to solve frequency overlap disputes.

  24. TWC: Word. A libertine society is surely an upgrade from the Beaver Cleaver 50’s, but all in all I think I’d prefer a libertarian society with freedom where it actually matters.

  25. The taboo words are generally Anglo-Saxon words that the Norman invaders of England in 1066 tried to vilify in an attempt to impose their culture. You can use the French derived words that mean the same thing all day long without it being bleeped — intercourse, excrement, etc. I think you could even use the Scottish equivalent — “shite”.

    Basically, it’s the FCC carrying on a nearly 1,000 year old war on Anglo-Saxon culture, even though the two cultures merged long ago because, as always, the subjugated women were fuckable.

  26. What if “fuck” doesn’t actually refer to, well, fucking? If, for example, I said, on national TV, “Edward you fucking asshole dickwad”, would it be obscene, since I’m not really talking about him literally fucking?

  27. prolefeed,
    I’m pretty sure “fuck” derives from the French.

  28. As much as I do believe that censorship is bullshit. As Hogan and Anarch has so rightly pointed out, these words being taboo is what makes them so great to use. After all if they were all accepted how could we express such great emotion or, even better IMO, offend people.

  29. but economist, in that particularly elegant example, aren’t you?

  30. @anarch

    I took a Human Sexuality course (Psych Dept.) in college. The instructor did something very similar: On the first day of class, we had to come up with slang terms for male and female anatomy along with terms for the sex act itself. (Needless to say, there were some *very creative* answers given out.) It was a great way to get past the uncomfortableness of the subject.

  31. Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue — to swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things in a vigorous ways.

    “Verdammt,” and its variations and enlargements, are words which have plenty of meaning, but the sounds are so mild and ineffectual that German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not be induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip out one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or don’t like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our “My gracious.” German ladies are constantly saying, “Ach! Gott!” “Mein Gott!” “Gott in Himmel!” “Herr Gott” “Der Herr Jesus!” etc. They think our ladies have the same custom, perhaps; for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young American girl: “The two languages are so alike — how pleasant that is; we say `Ach! Gott!’ you say `Goddamn.'”

  32. I’m too lazy to look this up, but I was under the impression fuck had scandanavian origins. fukka or something. i’d be pretty surprised if it came from french.

  33. Yerbaff: Homeopathy.

  34. FUCK THIS SHIT, I’M GOING TO DO ACTUAL FUCKING WORK RIGHT THE FUCK NOW. FUCK OFF YOU FLYING SHIT-FUCKS.

  35. Hogan, I won’t look it up because I know there’s no definitive answer, just lots of conjecture, including Fornication Under Consent of the King.

    I like to believe it derives from the classical Greek verb phuo, whence physis for “nature.”

  36. WORK

    Keep your four-letter words out of here, please.

  37. fuck etymology at wikipedia

    “An Anglo-Saxon charter granted by Offa, king of Mercia, dated AD 772, granting land at Bexhill, Sussex to a bishop, includes the text:

    ?onne syndon ?a gauolland ?as utlandes into Bexlea in hiis locis qui appellantur hiis nominibus: on Berna hornan .iii. hida, on Wyrtlesham .i., on Ibbanhyrste .i., on Croghyrste .viii., on Hrigce .i., on Gyllingan .ii., on Fuccerham 7 and on Blacanbrocan .i., on Ikelesham .iii.;…

    The placename Fuccerham looks like either “the home (h?m) of the fucker or fuckers” or “the enclosed pasture (hamm) of the fucker or fuckers”, who may have been a once-notorious man, or a locally well-known stud male animal, or a group of such.”

    yeah the history of the word is mostly conjecture, but it’s fun conjecture

  38. The placename Fuccerham looks like either “the home (h?m) of the fucker or fuckers”

    I’m assuming that Fuccerham was where a politician lived?

  39. fuck etymology

    Yes, it can involve conjecture, but I wouldn’t go that far in dismissing it. Jeez. Chill out.

  40. In Wikipedia the French foutre is listed as a possible origin, in part because it means roughly the same thing, taken literally.

  41. Moi, je m’en fiche.

  42. HOOOOOOOOOGAAAAAAAAANNNNNNN!!!!

    🙂

  43. I would guess that both the English and French variants of the word derive from an older Indo-European language. Most I-E languages that I’ve seen also seem to have some variation on the word that means mostly the same thing.

    It’s a great and useful word.

  44. prolefeed,
    I’m pretty sure “fuck” derives from the French.

    coucher = fuck ?

    Fuck sounds like the sound one hears during hard fucking, BTW.

  45. I wonder when actual fucking and shitting will cease to be legal.

  46. Frankly, the FCC could be cut down to size and I wouldn’t mind.

    50 ex-military radar/comms techs and 5 secretaries could perform all of the FCCs necessary fucntions (assigning freqs and power levels, investigate interference, etc).

    Because I want to be one of the techs, we’ll pay them all 500K a year, including the secretaties. 30 million plus office and travel expenses. This will save the taxpayers a fucking shitload of money.

    The downside? You may hear “fucking shitload” on the radio and occasionally get a flash of some tit on TV.

  47. JLE, regulation of the latter begins early in life, has never extended to outright prohibition.

    Regulation of the former advance, happily, in the opposite direction.

  48. The downside? You may hear “fucking shitload” on the radio and occasionally get a flash of some tit on TV.

    that’s not a downside, J sub D

  49. You may hear “fucking shitload” on the radio and occasionally get a flash of some tit on TV.

    Occasionally? You’d have hardcore porn channels if you got rid of the nanny censors.

    Which would be a feature, not a bug.

  50. The etymology of fuck, from the OED:

    Probably cognate with Dutch fokken to mock (15th cent.), to strike (1591), to fool, gull (1623), to beget children (1637), to have sexual intercourse with (1657), to grow, cultivate (1772), Norwegian regional fukka to copulate, Swedish regional fokka to copulate (compare Swedish regional fock penis), further etymology uncertain: perhaps < an Indo-European root meaning ‘to strike’ also shown by classical Latin pugnus fist (see PUGNACIOUS adj.). Perhaps compare Old Icelandic fj?ka to be driven on, tossed by the wind, feykja to blow, drive away, Middle High German fochen to hiss, to blow. Perhaps compare also Middle High German ficken to rub, early modern German ficken to rub, itch, scratch, German ficken to have sexual intercourse with (1558), German regional ficken to rub, to make short fast movements, to hit with rods, although the exact nature of any relationship is unclear.

    Hogan, I won’t look it up because I know there’s no definitive answer, just lots of conjecture, including Fornication Under Consent of the King.

    That’s one etymology that’s definitely untrue. Initialisms aren’t a source of words until near-universal literacy in the last century or so; any from before then are definitely folk etymologies. Even organizations never used initialisms as their name before the 20th century (maybe bleeding back into the late 19th, although I can’t think of any examples).

  51. in the immortal words of Frank Zappa,

    fick mich, du miserabler hurensohn

    (pardon the spelling, I don’t know German)

  52. The FCC should be little more than a arbitration body to solve frequency overlap disputes.

    You miss the point: what criteria should they use to decide who gets the right of way?

  53. grylliade, what about the US Army, US Government, etc? There are documents and posters from the early 19th century and before that have those phrases on them.

    But yeah, I don’t think acronyms were nearly as common as they are today.

  54. grylliade, what about the US Army, US Government, etc? There are documents and posters from the early 19th century and before that have those phrases on them.

    Sorry, I should have been more specific: initialisms weren’t used as words before the late nineteenth century or so. You have things like “HMS” or, as you pointed out, “USA” or “US government.” But you didn’t have NASA, or UNICEF, or such things (can’t think of any others offhand).

  55. Via merriam-webster:

    Main Entry: fuck
    Etymology: akin to Dutch fokken to breed (cattle), Swedish dialect f?kka to copulate
    Date: circa 1503

    This is confusing. I thought conservatives supported sex that focuses on procreation. Terms from breeding should be more respectable than a word like porn. “Porn” refers to Ancient Greek sex slaves that were for entertainment purposes. (I can’t believe I actually used information from that college event.)

  56. Come do think of it, shouldn’t Planned Parenthood be protesting “fuck”, because they oppose procreation? Does it count as fucking if you use a condom? Is it physically possible to fuck some one anally or orally? Does a sperm donation count as fucking?

  57. It’s time for traditionalists to reclaim “fuck” the way blacks turnned the n-word arround.

    Congregation Treasurer: With membership way down we don’t have enough dues to maintain the building, let alone run programing. I don’t know what we can do to boost membership.

    Congregation President: Fuck.

  58. Rude Passenger to Lady: Go fuck yourself.

    Lady: I’ve been doing that ever since college, and I’m still not pregnant.

    Gentleman standing by: That surprises me. You look positively gravid to me. Perhaps I can be of service.

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