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The seven dirty words (or "Filthy Words") are seven English-language words that American comedian George Carlin first listed in 1972 in his monologue "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television". The words are: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.
At the time, the words were considered highly inappropriate and unsuitable for broadcast on the public airwaves in the United States, whether radio or television. As such, they were avoided in scripted material, and bleep censored in the rare cases in which they were used; broadcast standards differ in different parts of the world, then and now, although most of the words on Carlin's original list remain taboo on American broadcast television as of 2014. The list was not an official enumeration of forbidden words, but rather was compiled by Carlin. Nonetheless, a radio broadcast featuring these words led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that helped establish the extent to which the federal government could regulate speech on broadcast television and radio in the United States.
During one of Lenny Bruce's performances in 1966, he said he was arrested for saying nine words, and says them in alphabetical order: ass, balls, cocksucker, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, piss, shit, tits. The last seven words are the same as George Carlin's.
In 1972, George Carlin released an album of stand-up comedy entitled Class Clown. One track on the album was "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," a monologue in which he identified these words, expressing amazement that these particular words could not be used, regardless of context. He was arrested for disturbing the peace when he performed the routine at a show at Summerfest in Milwaukee.
On his next album, 1973's Occupation: Foole, Carlin performed a similar routine titled "Filthy Words," dealing with the same list and many of the same themes. Pacifica station WBAI broadcast this version of the routine uncensored on October 30 that year.
John Douglas, an active member of Morality in Media, claimed that he heard the WBAI broadcast while driving with his then 15-year-old son and complained to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the material was inappropriate for the time of day.
Following the lodging of the complaint, the FCC proceeded to ask Pacifica for a response, then issued a declaratory order upholding the complaint. No specific sanctions were included in the order, but WBAI was put on notice that "in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." WBAI appealed this decision, which was overturned by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a 2–1 decision on the grounds that the FCC's definition of "indecency" was overbroad and vague and thus violated the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. The FCC in turn appealed to the Supreme Court. As an independent federal agency, the FCC filed the appeal in its own name. The United States Department of Justice intervened in the case, supporting Pacifica's argument that the FCC's declaratory ruling violated the First Amendment and that it also violated the Fifth Amendment in that the FCC's definition of "indecency" was too vague to support criminal penalties. In 1978 the Supreme Court, in a 5–4 decision, ruled that the FCC's Declaratory Ruling did not violate either the First or Fifth Amendments, but in so ruling it limited the scope of its ruling to the specific broadcast that gave rise to the Declaratory Ruling and declined to consider whether the FCC's definition of indecency would survive a First Amendment challenge if applied to the broadcast of other material containing the same or similar words which had been cited in Pacifica's brief (e.g., works of Shakespeare – "pissing conduits," "bawdy hand of the dial on the prick of noon"; the Bible – "he who pisseth against the wall", the Watergate Tapes). It noted that while the Declaratory Ruling pertained to the meaning of the term indecency as used in a criminal statute (18 USC 1464), since the FCC had not imposed any penalty on Pacifica for the broadcast of words that came within the FCC's definition of "indecent," it did not need to reach the question as to whether the definition was too vague to satisfy the due process requirements of the Fifth Amendment.
This decision formally established indecency regulation in American broadcasting. In follow-up rulings, the Supreme Court established the safe-harbor provision that grants broadcasters the right to broadcast indecent (but not obscene) material between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am, when it is presumed many children will be asleep. The FCC has never maintained a specific list of words prohibited from the airwaves during the time period from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but it has alleged that its own internal guidelines are sufficient to determine what it considers obscene. The seven dirty words had been assumed to be likely to elicit indecency-related action by the FCC if uttered on a TV or radio broadcast, and thus the broadcast networks generally censor themselves with regard to many of the seven dirty words. The FCC regulations regarding "fleeting" use of expletives were ruled unconstitutionally vague by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York on July 13, 2010, as they violated the First Amendment due to their possible effects regarding free speech.
The original seven words are:
In his comedy special Carlin commented that at one point, a man asked him to remove motherfucker because, as a derivative of fuck, it constituted a duplication. He later added it back, claiming the bit's rhythm does not work without it. In his comedy routine, Carlin would make fun of each word; for example he would say that tits should not be on the list because it sounds like a nickname or a snack ("New Nabisco Tits! ...corn tits, cheese tits, tater tits!").
Some of the words on Carlin's original list have since been used to some degree on broadcast television in the United States. The word shit (in the context of "It was a bullshit call") was uttered in anger during a brief live interview on CBS of professional basketball player Ralph Sampson after he was ejected from game 5 of the 1986 NBA Finals for fighting. The word "titties" was said on the first episode of The Trials of Rosie O'Neill in 1990, sparking some controversy. It has also been uttered more recently in the popular Jimmy Kimmel video "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck," in which Ben Affleck utters "Hey, Sarah, he's got bigger tits," which originally aired in 1998 on the After Oscar special of the ABC show Jimmy Kimmel Live! after the 80th Academy Awards, all without incident. The word piss (usually used in the context of the phrase "pissed off") has been commonplace since the 1980s. The word shit was heard on rare occasions in the 1990s, for the first time in an episode of Chicago Hope spoken by Mark Harmon, and later in the season eight episode of ER in which Dr. Mark Greene dies. The word shit was also spoken in several episodes of NYPD Blue. The word "shit" has been said uncensored on cable programs quite frequently since FX began original programming in 2002 with the television series The Shield—notably, in the South Park episode "It Hits the Fan," the word was spoken uncensored 162 times. CBS recently aired the show Shit My Dad Says based on a Twitter feed but they spelled it "$#*!" and pronounced it as "bleep".
Producers have often implied the word fuck, although usually obscuring the word with a background sound effect or a beeping sound. One of Carlin's later additions to the list, fart, is also used frequently. Turd is allowed on broadcast TV, though in performance Carlin explained that you can say it, "but who wants to?"
American rock band Blink-182 released a thirty-five second song called "Family Reunion", which is simply a list of Carlin's expanded list (original seven plus fart, turd and twat) repeated four times.
On March 10, 2002, CBS aired 9/11, a prime-time special featuring first responders during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It contained a number of utterances of the word fuck. One notable early use of this word on American television occurred a few years after Carlin made his list, when the documentary Scared Straight!, which included numerous utterances of the word and its derivatives, was broadcast uncensored.
The FCC has often looked at the context of the use of a word when judging whether it is objectionable. This has at times led to controversy, such as when a bureau of the FCC deemed the utterance of the word fucking (as an intensifier) in January 2003 at the live Golden Globe Awards broadcast by Bono, the front man of the band U2, was not indecent under its criteria since they said that under the context of its use it was not intended to describe or depict sexual and excretory activities and organs. The full FCC, however, later reversed the decision in early 2004, though a fine has not been levied against Bono. In December 2003 Congressman Doug Ose, citing the incident, introduced legislation in the US House of Representatives that would have explicitly deemed six of the words profane (tits was excluded but asshole added).
In a similar incident on October 31, 2008, Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley took the stage at Citizens Bank Park during the team's World Series celebration and said, "World champions. World fucking champions!" Utley's epithet was aired live on almost every television station in the Philadelphia television market. The FCC took no action.
When Norm Macdonald hosted Saturday Night Live on October 23, 1999, during a "Celebrity Jeopardy!" segment, Macdonald, portraying Burt Reynolds, read "A petit" as "ape tit". This was written in the script.
The FCC does not directly target the networks—only stations carrying a network's programming are licensed. Since most of the networks own some of the stations that carry their programming, these stations can be fined as a way of indirectly fining the network.
In the 2011 NASCAR Coca-Cola 600, crew chief Chad Knaus screamed after his driver's engine blew up, "You've got to be fucking kidding me!" uncensored. The Fox Sports announcers immediately apologized for Knaus's language.
The 2008 installment of "Dead Letters", The Washington Post Style Invitational's annual collection of verse-form obituaries for persons who died in the previous year, included a Carlin obituary in whose text seven words were "blanked out" without explanation, leaving readers to use the poem's rhyme scheme, its meter, and their independent knowledge of the monologue and/or FCC v. Pacifica case to determine which words belonged where.
After the seventh game of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals Marc-Andre Fleury, the winning goaltender, said "Oh shit" in his post-game interview with a CBC reporter. A few seconds later Fleury added "Oh sorry, I guess", likely due to realizing what he had said.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics, snowboarder Shaun White was heard exclaiming "holy shit!" after realizing that he was going to win the gold medal in men's halfpipe. The NBC commentators immediately apologized for White's language.
FM radio stations in North America, while generally avoiding the words in commentary and using censored versions of recordings when available, will broadcast some notable songs that contain expletives (e.g., The Who's 1978 song "Who Are You", which repeats the phrase "Who the fuck are you?" twice) unexpurgated. The last song played on former Houston radio station KTRU was "Fuck School" by The Replacements, a song which includes the word "fuck" 32 times. It was aired uncensored without incident on April 28, 2011 just after 6 a.m.
The Cartoon Network award-winning series, Regular Show contains moderate cussing from time to time (due to its TV-PG rating), including "piss" sometimes in earlier episodes. However, recent airings and home video releases of these episodes have "piss" censored and replaced with "tick".
On April 20, 2013, David Ortiz used "fucking" on a cable broadcast that was also aired on the radio. During a pre-game ceremony before the first home Red Sox game following the Boston Marathon Bombings, Ortiz said "This is our fucking city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong." Despite a handful of FCC complaints, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski tweeted "David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today's Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston – Julius".
The FCC obscenity guidelines have never been applied to non-broadcast media such as cable television or satellite radio. It is widely held that the FCC's authorizing legislation (particularly the Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996) does not enable the FCC to regulate content on subscription-based services, which include cable television, satellite television, and pay-per-view television. Whether the FCC or the Department of Justice could be empowered by the Congress to restrict indecent content on cable television without such legislation violating the Constitution has never been settled by a court of law. Since cable television must be subscribed to in order to receive it legally, it has long been thought that since subscribers who object to the content being delivered may cancel their subscription, an incentive is created for the cable operators to self-regulate (unlike broadcast television, cable television is not legally considered to be "pervasive", nor does it depend on a scarce, government-allocated electromagnetic spectrum; as such, neither of the arguments buttressing the case for broadcast regulation particularly apply to cable television).
Self-regulation by many basic cable networks is undertaken by Standards and Practices (S&P) departments that self-censor their programming because of the pressure put on them by advertisers — also meaning that any basic cable network willing to ignore such pressure could use any of the Seven Dirty Words.
In recent years, many or all of the words on Carlin's list have come into common usage in many made-for-cable series and film productions, such as Dexter, Deadwood, Entourage, The Wire, The Shield, The Sopranos, Weeds, Californication, Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, The Inbetweeners, Skins, True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Dead Like Me, South Park, Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Breaking Bad and It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
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