George Carlin, the standup comedian who made legal history by uttering seven rude words, died on Sunday at the age of 71. His passing presents every responsible news organisation with a dilemma – do we, or do we not, print those seven words?
He used them all in a thoughtful comedy routine about language that he performed in Milwaukee in 1972. "There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions," he said. Yet, out of 400,000 words in the English language, there are seven: "That will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war...."
In addition to the seven that you "cannot say ever, ever, ever, not even clinically", there are some "two-way words" that are innocent or offensive, according to context. For example, Carlin pointed out: "It's OK to say [baseball star] Roberto Clemente has two balls on him. But you can't say 'I think he hurt his balls on that play.'"
Alternatively: "You can prick your finger, but don't finger your prick – no, no."
Someone in his audience that night was thoroughly offended. Afterwards, Carlin was arrested and bailed on a charge of disturbing the peace. A Wisconsin judge ruled that though the monologue was indecent, there is a right to free speech in the US, and the prosecution had failed to produce any evidence that the peace actually was disturbed. More...