So bad you can’t say it on TV

Hal Duncan has a fantastic post about the one word in the English language that is so bad and so taboo that you cannot use it at all.

And no, I’m not spelling it out on this blog. Not because I have a personal aversion to the word, but because I’m a teacher and I don’t want a student to accidentally stumble across this blog and pick up a word I’d rather not have them pick up. When I teach at university, that word and similarly rude and taboo terms are fair game, because everybody there is an adult. But with schoolkids I have to maintain some standards. Never mind that kids who think that saying “penis” over and over again out loud is the rudest and most daring thing ever don’t really need to know more.

I actually did teach medical and harmless colloquial terms for intimate bodyparts at one point. A girl kept asking “What is ‘penis’ in English?”, “What is ‘breast’?, etc… and thought she would shock me. Whereupon I – refusing to be shocked – asked her if I should write it down on the board for her. And did. The kids thought that was incredibly naughty, though my stand is that those are just words and no worse than the words I’ve heard them use in German. Besides, I bet that they’ll never forget those particular words, even if all other vocabulary is sucked into the memory black hole.

About the unmentionable word, the striking thing is how utterly unmentionable that word truly is. Even the sort of TV shows that have a reputation for crass language and content dance around that one. Sex and the City spells it out, but does not say it. What is more, they kept spelling out the English word in the German dubbed version, even though hardly any viewers would have gotten what they were on about.

In Ashes to Ashes, a gangster is about to say the word to Gene Hunt – there’s even a play on the rhyme with the name, just in case we don’t get it – only to be interrupted by his wife. Gene smirks, obviously amused at being called taboo names. When watching the show with a German friend, I actually stopped the recording at that point to explain how the gangster was about to say a very bad word and why that word was so very, very bad.

My friend: “Look, he’s smirking. He’s totally enjoying that.”

Me: “Well, it’s not as if he hasn’t called people a lot of worse things.”

What surprises me about Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is how in spite of the crass insults in every single episode (the accents and the insults made my little linguist’s heart regularly jump with joy) there are very few actual taboo words. “Shit” is probably the worst word actually said out loud. The c-word is only alluded to. There’s not a single “fuck”. Which is quite surprising for a show whose hero is notorious for saying the most outrageous things. I suspect the reason was circumventing BBC programming guidelines, but it’s also a neat hint that underneath all that bluster Gene Hunt is a very old-fashioned person who would not say “bad words”. Coincidentally, it also serves to show how fucked up our world is, when using a simple word referring to genitals or bodily functions is considered worse than threatening someone with having rodents gnaw on said genitals (which happens at least twice in the show).

Another UK show, Misfits, to my infinite surprise, actually does utter the bad c-word out loud. In fact, my surprise was so infinite that I almost fell of my chair with shock. Of course, Misfits is a Channel 4 show and their guidelines are loser than the BBC’s. Still, I was really surprised to hear that absolutely taboo, “you can’t say this on television ever” word uttered in a TV show. Come to think of it, it might have been used in Queer As Folk (coincidentally another Channel 4 show), though I’m not sure.

Meanwhile, I have been at an English language poetry reading where the word was said out loud, referring to Tony Blair. The result was a lot of laughter and spontaneous applause from those in the audience who knew what it meant and a lot of “What’s so funny?” confusion from those who didn’t. A fellow student asked me, “What did she [the poet] just say?” Me: “She just called Tony Blair a set of female genitals.” Fellow student: “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Which brings us to the crux of the matter, namely that which words are and are not considered taboo, too bad and ugly to say under any circumstances, is very much culturally determined. To Germans, insulting a man by calling him a slang term for female genitals makes no sense, though it is very common in the UK. We do have a local equivalent to the c-word, but that one is exclusively used as a slur against women. A very, very bad slur at that. Last year, I actually had to lecture a 6th-grader on why using that word is a very bad idea, why reducing women to their genitalia is bad and why he shouldn’t be surprised that the girl to whom he said the word beat him up.

I don’t like the crude German word for female genitalia and would never use it as an epithet – and I swear pretty indiscriminately. To me, it is an extremely ugly word with an ugly sound. However, I am also aware that this is just my cultural conditioning speaking. Because I have no such qualms about the c-word. It does not sound ugly to me and hearing or reading the word results more in a “Wow, they went there” reaction than in “Alert! Ugly, disgusting word!”. I have actually used the c-word in writing, both in the purely anatomical sense (I used to write historical erotica and it is a historically accurate term) and also in the insult sense. Interestingly, my antagonist, who is an unpleasant misogynist c-word, uses the word to insult his former girlfriend. Meanwhile, my protagonist uses it to insult the above mentioned misogynist arsehole, but would never dream of using it against a woman.

I fully expect that the word will not survive an edit in any case.

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5 Responses to So bad you can’t say it on TV

  1. Estara says:

    The one thing I remember from two years of French is definitely “Ferme ta geule”, but I have no idea how to write that these days ^^.

  2. Cora says:

    Since the students in question can’t even remember irregular verb forms from one week to the next, I’d be very glad if they remember anything I taught them, even if it’s terms for intimate bodyparts.

    One unexpected side effect of writing “naughty” words on the blackboard is that some kids now confuse me with Dr. Sommer from the Bravo and come to me with intimate questions. Kind of sad that their English teacher is the only person they feel they can ask about intimate matters.

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