Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
On TV or in budget documents
Aww, I was trying to stay in the holiday spirit. I had a post prepared with my own version of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
But the current administration just had to mess with words again. I can’t let it go by when people are messing with words. And in this case, there was a similarity that was too good to ignore.
7 Words We Cannot Use in Budget Documents
7 Words We Cannot Say on Television
Sound familiar? If not, you’re in for a treat.
Background—The federal administration has, according to the Washington Post, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies within Health and Human Services a list of seven words or phrases that cannot be used in agency budget documents.
Here’s the HHS list:
“vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
Other government agencies have been given other lists of words to “avoid” but the HHS list of 7 words was the most recent and best reported. The HHS protested that the CDC officials weren’t told they couldn’t use those words at all, just not in anything related to the budget.
Sort of like “dirty words.” You can use some of them in some contexts, just not in all contexts.
In 1972, the incredible comedian and social commentator (same thing in those days, right?) George Carlin started performing a routine about the
7 dirty words you can’t say on television
That’s right. There were 7 of them. Too bad the federal administration didn’t have someone on staff with a better sense of humor who would have recognized the similarity. Or, come to think of it, maybe there was someone on that staff with enough of a sense of humor to recognize it and let it go. I like that idea.
7 dirty words you can’t say on television
7 dirty words you can't write in budget documents
Carlin complained that no one would give a list of the words not to say. As a kid, you find out by trial and error (or parental smacking, in his video) which words you can’t say. Then you discover that some words are okay sometimes but not all the time. The word “cock” is in the Bible, but you can’t say it on TV. Today, Carlin might add that you can say, “What a sweet little pussy,” but not “I’d grab some pussy.” (Maybe you CAN say the last one, at least so far.)
So Carlin compiled a list of the 7 words that you can NEVER say on television. They are also words I would never say on my blog, except that, as he said, it depends on context. There are words you could say with friends but not in church. In this case, I’ll say there are words you can say when we’re talking about words that I wouldn’t say otherwise. I can’t blur out Carlin’s words with asterisks and still make his point. Skip over the next two sentences if seeing dirty words will offend you.
Here’s Carlin’s list of the 7 words you can never say on television:
“Shit piss fuck cunt cocksucker motherfucker and tits”
Carlin’s delivery in this routine, of course, makes the list hysterically funny. The seven words are delivered rapid fire as one continuous phrase without a pause. I’ve inserted the youtube link to the best part of this routine. Please watch it if you can.
Carlin has a lot to say about the rhythm of the list, too, and why the two multi-syllabic words are both needed. So I might reorder the HHS list just a little bit, to make the seven words more effective rhythmically:
“vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, evidence-based, science-based, and fetus”
Say it rapid fire as one continuous phrase without a pause and you get the effect.
“vulnerable entitlement diversity transgender evidence-based science-based and fetus”
Carlin’s routine involves frequent repetition of the list of 7, delivered as one seamless phrase. Repetition, repetition, repetition. He’s making a point, of course, or several points.
Words are words, until we decide some have special meaning or power. Carlin says the 7 dirty words are words we’ve “decided” not to say. Here we are today with the federal administration telling others what words they’ve decided others can’t say. At least the a list. Maybe after too much trial and error (smack!).
Carlin stressed that these are words you can never say on television. The HHS protests that these are words banned only from anything to do with the budget approval by Republicans.
Carlin goes on to list other words that might be candidates for the list. The list of dirty words keeps getting added to all the time, he says. The words he lists become raunchier and raunchier as he goes on, and the list becomes longer and longer.
The HHS list becomes longer, too. The Washington Post reports that HHS agencies have been given other words not to use, too.
“Obamacare,” not Affordable Care Act
“exchanges” not marketplaces for insurance
The State Department uses “sexual risk avoidance” instead of sex education
The list of words not to say keeps getting longer and longer.
Somehow it’s not as funny when the HHS says it.
In his routine on euphemisms (euphemisms could be a topic for a whole other blog post in the future), George Carlin reminds us that changing the name doesn't change the condition. Then why change?
Because words do matter. What we call things doesn't just reflect the culture of the moment but can have an effect on the culture longer term and can have an effect on real people, on our humanity. Carlin runs through the changing words for the brain condition of many veterans after war, from "shell shock" to "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder" (and now just PTSD). “The humanity has been squeezed completely out of the expression,” he says, and then “the pain is completely buried under jargon.”
I'll bet ya if we'd a still been calling it "shell shock" some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time"
Words matter. Banning words matters. Speaking truth matters.
We have to be careful about words because words can hurt, words can harm others. But the words used to disguise truth are lies, not kindness. Manipulation, not empathy.
Who is speaking the truth today that George Carlin spoke for earlier generations? Who has the courage to say the 7 words you cannot say, whatever those words might be the next time?
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