Look out for those words of curse

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/10/01 10:01 -04:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2005/10/01/473792.aspx

A lot of people do not like South Park very much.

Of course, as it works to shock us, such a reaction can only be expected. Since often the easiest way to shock someone is with some type of vulgarity. And there is no shortage of vulgarity on South Park.

But there is also a very bold tradition, very commonly seen in the Heinlein juveniles and even before that, where the heroes are the children, and the adults can do little more than try to keep up.

I was thinking the other day about the episode that led off the fifth season, entitled It Hits The Fan. In this episode (apparently taking poshots on the NYPD Blue episode with non-censored swear words that had people clamoring for at least a month), the network decides to make a bold move and say the word 'shit' without bleeping it. Suddenly everyone is cursing. And a strange disease also seems to be killing people, too. The boys, who have already realized what the adults and network executives have not (that saying the word was much more exciting when it was taboo to say), run into the ancient Knights of Standards and Practices who are guardians trying to keep people from overusing curse words, lest destruction come.

The folks in the South Park Studios even ran a contest in guessing the number of times the word would be used in the episode -- the final number was 162 (only two off of my own guess of 164).

Anyway, there were several interesting and sometimes (dare I say it?) linguistic points buried in the episode:

But at the same time, the lessons were perhaps a little in conflict with each other (probably a side effect of them not being an explicily intended message!). On the one hand, whether to censor speech specifically depends on whether (by some external criteria) you are qualified (for lack of a better term) to say certain terms. And on the other hand, it is a network executive who repeats the swear word continuously without any specific intent other than to prove he could that leads to the earth opening and a fire breathing dragon to come out. Perhaps the message of the censoring is that a word may not actually be a curse word if it is used appropriately, by an appropriate person...

I wonder how such principles would apply to movies like The Last Boy Scout, in which the use of swear words per capita may even rival this South Park episode. Or even to the first South Park movie, where Matt and Trey are able to insert one of their own little petty hatreds by getting Barbara Streisand's name to be classed as a curse word that is affected by the V-chip. The irony of how curse words (well, Cartman's 'filthy  f***ing mouth') saved the day in the movie while it is the sparing use of and control over such things that saved the day later is also kind of fun.... why be consistent? :-)

Anyway, I guess the message is that words can be so important that you do not need to fully understand them for them to have an impact. In the words of Talk Radio's Barry Champlain, "Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words cause permanent damage."

Indeed they might. So we should all look out for those words of curse. And perhaps reconsider whether or not to order the หมี่กรอบ (Meekrob), which in the eyes of Matt and Trey may have been the most important lesson of the episode....


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# Ryan on 1 Oct 2005 8:05 PM:

I do not watch South Park, but you have raised some interesting points.

Is the censorship issue you mention anything like the way that I would not use the word "nigger" but my black friends do sometimes?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 1 Oct 2005 8:51 PM:

Hi Ryan -- I think it is a similar concept, kind of our own self-censorship, if you will. It makes me wonder if these words are swear words to those who use them comfortably, though....

# Maurits [MSFT] on 2 Oct 2005 12:59 AM:

Four-letter works in English are mostly Anglo-Saxon in origin. Their more acceptable Franco-Latin counterparts (fornicate, defecate, urinate etc.) date from the Norman invasion of 1066. William the Conqueror set up all of his French buddies as regional lords.

If you wanted to get ahead in England in the late eleventh century, it behooved you to adopt a more French manner of speech, and less of an Anglo-Saxon manner.

This is /still/ true, almost a millenium later.

# Heath Stewart on 2 Oct 2005 1:05 PM:

As you've pointed out, despite the vulgarity South Park episodes do teach very valuable lessons. I do love the way Matt and Trey poke fun - or bring light to - some of the social blunders of pop culture.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 2 Oct 2005 2:28 PM:

I agree Heath, and I also like that when they are allowed they do not mind using those less appropriate but more generally useful words that maurits was speaking against....

Of course, the lack of consistency can be explained either by the fact that these are small schoolchildren, or more likely that Matt and Trey enjoying being immature. :-)

# Jamie Black on 27 Feb 2008 11:49 AM:

i hate stupid people

# ahsile on 23 Apr 2008 1:58 AM:

Southpark is absolutely amazing...It has hidden meanings and messages that most people don't catch. And as for it being rude and vulgar- what movie or show isnt anymore? I don't think people pay any attention to it; but if they did they'd realize what an insightful show it was. It raises a lot of questions about what is happening today! HOwever people find it another show with a lot of swearing. Look closer and you'll see the incredibility of the show under all the crude terms and perverse language.

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