In the United States, there are seven words that you can't say on TV.
It's not an official list, and no such list exists. Instead, they were codified by the late great George Carlin in 1972 on his seminal comedy album Class Clown, as a way of encapsulating the bizarre censorship standards of US network television. He pointed out the incongruity between showing violence, sexual situations, and other unpleasantness that wouldn't make it to the air in most countries, but at the same time censoring mundanities like toilets, pregnancy, and two-person beds, practices that lasted until even after the 1960s. Carlin was, of course, totally unencumbered by broadcasting standards and said the words out loud.
As might be expected, Carlin's little list caused a furor from Moral Guardians, and when Pacifica Radio took a flier and broadcast the routine over the air, it caused a legal spat that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which more or less punted and said that while the Seven Dirty Words aren't always unacceptable for broadcast, the FCC had the right to restrict broadcast content to prevent children from being exposed to it.
The FCC doesn't have direct censorship power, but they do have the unilateral right to grant and revoke broadcast licenses for nebulous reasons, and they thus wield considerable power over the broadcasters. However, the FCC doesn't monitor the broadcasts on their own, but rather relies on the viewers and listeners to call in and complain if anything objectionable happens. This means that an American broadcaster can get away with anything as long as the audience doesn't object to it, leading to the long-standing American game of "try it and see if you get away with it." This is also how live events might let an accidental F-bomb slip through (although there's often a seven-second delay to catch those). There's also a dichotomy between the mainstream commercial networks (which are bound by the FCC), the "basic cable" networks (which can do what they like but are so universal that they follow FCC guidelines voluntarily), and the "premium cable" channels like HBO, who famously don't care about this sort of thing.
So this means that although the Seven Dirty Words are uncommon on "mainstream" American TV, you might see them every now and then, especially as viewer standards change over time:
- Shit: Nowadays, you can say it on certain basic cable channels after 9pm. Over the air, NYPD Blue, a show long known for pushing boundaries, caused only a small furor when it announced that it would air the first uncensored instance of the word "shit" on network television (not that it stopped South Park from viciously mocking the idea).
- Piss: Carlin, later in life, pointed out that the acceptability of "piss" has turned into a question of whether or not it is an actual reference to urine — "I got pissed off" is far less likely to get bleeped than "I got pissed on". The first network broadcast to allow "piss" to mean "urinate" was Shogun.
- Fuck: Still a bad word and unlikely to be heard on the networks, but you might catch one in documentary-style broadcasts. The first such broadcast was the documentary Scared Straight, which aired in the mid-1970s and included several F-bombs.
- Cunt: This may be the only one of the seven which is more offensive now than when Carlin did the original routine — not only is it forbidden on American network television, but Americans (and Canadians) avoid even using it in conversation. If you do, and a woman is around, she will slap you and no one will blame her — use of the word alone is considered evidence of sexual harassment in North America. It's that offensive. But across the pond, it's considered more acceptable.
- Cocksucker: Largely still banned, even though its constituent parts are okay; "suck" can be heard even in G-rated media (even in the pejorative sense), and "cock" is acceptable in a non-phallic sense (e.g. chickens, or preparing to fire a gun). Part of the problem is the extreme homophobic undertone of the word. The best place to see this in action is a non-HBO rebroadcast of Bull Durham, which has a scene that depends on the word.
- Motherfucker: See "fuck". A fan pointed out to Carlin that the word was redundant, and Carlin replied that he knew that, but removing it disrupted the rhythm of the piece. It's still generally considered more offensive than just "fuck"; in Deadwood, for example, characters take great offense at the word, as they interpret it as a literal reference to incest.
- Tits: Like "piss", it's more acceptable now, but it still causes issues. Carlin described it as the least offensive of the words on his list. It's still controversial; its use in an episode of the 1980s sitcom The Trials Of Rosie O Neil caused an uproar, and it's rarely been heard on network TV since. Its acceptability may well be declining, as it's considered a sexist term.
Carlin's follow-up album Occupation: Foole features a redux of the Seven Dirty Words and augments it with three additional words:
- Fart: Like "tits", it's more of a "cute" word, and has become more widely used even in PG-rated programming.
- Turd: You can't say it — but then again, who wants to? In any event, its use has also become more acceptable since Carlin cited it.
- Twat: Carlin pointed out that it's the only part of the sexual anatomy that doesn't have a double meaning. "Snatch", "box", "pussy", "balls", and "dong" (when used after "ding") can be used in a Disney movie if used properly, but there's no situation when you can get away with "twat".
One word you might be looking for which Carlin never cited is "ass", and its derivative "asshole" — both were banned from U.S. network TV at the time of Carlin's recording, except when using "ass" to refer to the animal. That one's also improved since then; "ass" can be heard every now and then, and while "asshole" is rare, it made its network debut on NYPD Blue and was heard quite frequently on that show.
Media That Have Referenced The Seven Dirty Words:
- The Simpsons comic book in one issue showed a weary George Carlin talking about "The Seven Words You Used to Not Be Able to Say on TV But Are Perfectly All Right Now."
- In Gulliver's Travels, a paragraph in Part III, Chapter VI describes the "decoding" of letters and papers to "prove" their authors guilty of plotting against the state. This process consists of replacing one noun with a related one ("...they can decypher a Close-stool to signify a Privy-Council; a Flock of Geese, a Senate..."). One of the substitutions is to replace "a Sink" with "a C—-t" — censored thus, or replaced with "court", in most printings, but the intended word is fairly obvious.
- Discworld gives us the Verbal Tic "——ing", which looks a lot like a censored "fucking" and is treated as such In-Universe, but is also apparently pronounced with dashes. Terry Pratchett once mentioned that he occasionally would get mail worried that children will start saying "——ing" as if it were a swear word, which goes to prove first that profanity is what you make of it, and second that there's nothing that someone out there won't take offense to. The word's first appearance in Mort says it all, when a couple of muggers realise their putative victim is a wizard:
"Well, —— me," he said. "A ——ing wizard. I hate ——ing wizards!"
"You shouldn't —— them, then," muttered one of his henchmen, effortlessly pronouncing a row of dashes."
- In Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos, Martin Silenus suffers brain damage that reduces his vocabulary to the Seven Dirty Words. He manages to communicate with them quite effectively. He eventually gets better.
- Ian Fleming snuck one into his James Bond novel You Only Live Twice in which, during a discussion about foul language, Bond references the old "Freddy Uncle Charlie Katie."
- Zeroth Law example: William Shakespeare had a pretty filthy mind. Anything that you think might be a joke along these lines probably is.
- From Twelfth Night:
Malvolio: By my life, this is my lady's hand[writing]; these be her C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P's.
- The title of Much Ado About Nothing has several intended meanings, including one which only makes sense when you know that in Shakespeare's time, "nothing" was a euphemism for women's parts.
- Hamlet also has a conversation about "nothing":
Hamlet: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
Ophelia: No, my lord.
Hamlet: I mean my head upon your lap.
Ophelia: Aye, my lord.
Hamlet: Or did you think I meant country matters?
Ophelia: I think nothing, my lord.
Hamlet: That's a fair thought, to lie between maid's legs.
- From Twelfth Night:
- In Everybody Hates Chris, Chris hears his parents listen to the Carlin routine. He passes on the list at school to get laughs, but ends up in trouble for it. To get the story onto network TV, each word is replaced with its number in Carlin's list. The last line of the episode: "Number Threeeeee!"
Mrs. Morello: Chris, I would like to have a word with you. In fact, I'd like seven words with you.
Narrator: Number one just hit the fan.
- An episode of That '70s Show featured the gang listening to the routine. Eric went through the rest of the episode using the words' numbers to insult people. Donna (on Eric's suggestion) later tricks a rival radio DJ into playing the record on the air to get the other woman fired. Eric is also inconsistent on using the numbers correctly; sometimes he gets it right (e.g. "You think your one don't stink — well, three off, you threeing three!"), others don't make sense (e.g. You are one sixing, sevening monkey-fiver"), and still others only make sense if he's looking for a little tongue action (to Donna: "Now, let's go home and five all night.").
- Have I Got News for You made the episode "Have I Got Unbroadcastable News for You" exclusively for home video, and the producer decides to point out some words not to mention in the recording:
Producer: Wee-wee, piddle, nipples, farting, winkle, poo-poos, front bottom, semolina—
Richard Wilson: Semolina?
Producer [waves hand as if to say, "Don't even go there"] —penetrate, fallopian, renal, rectum, post-coital, and simultaneous multiple orgasm.
Richard Wilson: What about "fuck"?
Producer: Oh, yeah! You can say "fuck"! Got to sell it to the thirteen-year-olds, after all.
- In Monty Python's Flying Circus, Michael Palin shows up with a set of slides showing words that can no longer be used on the program, all of them censored: B*m, B*tty, P*x, Kn*ckers, Kn*ckers, W**-W**, and Semprini.
Audience member: Semprini?
- Used in The X-Files when most of one episode is presented as Scully's account of a case she and Mulder worked on. In her version of events, a foul-mouthed detective actually says "bleep". A lot.
"You really bleeped up this case."
Scully: (narrating) Of course, he didn't actually say "bleeped", he said...
- In one episode of The Two Ronnies, a pub puts up a Swear Jar to raise money for the church, and all of the words on the list are censored by bleeps, klaxons, and other sound effects. One of them, worth a whole pound rather than 20p, is given a much louder whooping noise.
- On The Colbert Report Stephen did a segment on Carlin's death where he mistakes the list for a list of words Carlin himself had banned from the airwaves. After he thanks Carlin, an off-screen man tells Stephen that he was a stand-up who used that list to mock censorship. Stephen then turns to a photo of Carlin and calls him a motherf*beep*er.
- $#*! My Dad Says put one of the words in the title itself, but censored it with Symbol Swearing. It's probably the only show on television whose proper title cannot be said on any of the stations on which it airs. It was usually referred to in advertising in "Bleep My Dad Says". Many viewers' DVR players refused to recognize the non-alphanumeric characters in the title, making it impossible to find (which may have been a factor in the show becoming a flop).
- The Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget had Jeff Ross pay tribute to the recently deceased Carlin by announcing seven more dirty words that will never be said on television: "And the Emmy goes to Bob Saget!"
- In the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 involving the film The Magic Sword, before reading the fan letter, there's a brief conversation about naughty words inspired by the film's seven curses. The crew suggests dirty words which you can say on television, among them "hinder", "booger", "poopie", "kaka", and "dingaling". Recurring catchphrase "dickweed" was probably the most offensive.
- Invoked on MythBusters, where they test the adage "You can't polish a turd" but can't use the words "turd" or "shit" more than twice (and Jamie immediately uses up the privilege). Adam rattles of a list of synonyms for "shit" that the producers will let them use. They made it a point to show how ridiculous the censorship was.
- The Daily Show paid homage to the "Seven Dirty Words" sketch in a November 2014 segment and bleeped out six of them — but not "tits".
- blink-182 has a number of yawn-and-you-won't-hear-it short songs that are largely excuses to use profanity. One of them — the ironically-titled song "Family Reunion" — uses the Seven Dirty Words, including the three auxiliary words (You can hear it here). After four verses consisting entirely of those ten words repeated rhythmically, the song finishes with "I fucked your mom" and an "outtake" by Tom in a wobbly tenor:
"I wanna suck my daaad, and my momma too— Oh, is this thing on?"
- Tim Minchin plays with this: "I saw the word 'fuck' on the front page of the newspaper — all they had to do was spell it 'f**k'." He goes on to point out that by contrast, you couldn't get away with a normally innocuous word like "finger", even if you spelt it "f** ger", as in "I want to finger your mum."
- Flanders and Swann spoofed the swearing and censorship brigade as early as The '50s, with a song called "Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers". The song title was printed on the album cover as "P** P* B*** B** D***".
- The song "Do It Like A Dude" by Jessie J has been played on public radio. The words "motherfucker" (in each bridge) and "crotch" (twice each chorus) as well as a bunch of other sex-rated words have to be blanked, but Jessie Jay is popular enough that stations will play this crippled version anyway.
- Voltaire's "The Dirtiest Song that Ain't" uses rhymes that prompt the audience to fill in the words he's not allowed to say on the radio.
- Metallica featured the following parody of a warning sticker on Master of Puppets:
The only track you probably won't want to play is "Damage, Inc." due to the multiple use of the infamous "F" word. Otherwise, there aren't any "Shits", "Fucks", "Pisses", "Cunts", "Motherfuckers" or "Cocksuckers" anywhere on this record.
- This may be an homage to Carlin, since it consists entirely of six of his Seven Dirty Words and excluded the one he said didn't really belong on the list, "Tits".
- Monty Python parodied this trope in a similar example to Voltaire's example above with "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio", which uses Sound Effect Bleeps to censor parts of the song. The listener's mind makes the song sound a lot dirtier than it actually is. It apparently actually did get played on the radio, though.
- Cracked: In 2008, Michael Swaim decided to make a list of "7 Words You Can't Say on the Internet without Starting a Flame War" as a tribute to George Carlin. The words were also referenced in the After Hours episode "Why Indiana Jones Secretly Sucks At His Job", in which, after referencing Carlin's role in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Swaim's character recites all seven of the words, much to the horror of everyone else at the table. The only one that wasn't bleeped was "tits."
- Epic Rap Battles of History: A Season 6 battle features George Carlin, who acknowledges that he's in an Internet video, meaning he can use all of them. And he does.
George Carlin: Now, there's seven words you can't say on a TV set,
But this is the pissing fucking cunting Internet
And my cocksucking motherfucking bits are the tits!
Non-stopping brain droppings like my wit's got the shits!
- The SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Sailor Mouth" plays with the trope a lot, with a set of dirty words that are all censored by different sound effects, which means that the real sound effects (e.g. a dolphin cackling, an old car horn) are mistaken for dirty words.
Mr. Krabs: Yessir, that is bad word number eleven. In fact, there are thirteen bad words you should never use.
Squidward: Don't you mean there are only seven?
Mr. Krabs: Not if you're a sailor. (laughs)
- The Simpsons:
- After Kent Brockman is fired for saying "a word so vile it should only be uttered by Satan himself while sitting on the toilet", Grandpa remarks that in his day TV celebrities weren't allowed to say "booby", "tushy", "burp", "fanny-burp", "underpants", "dingle-dangle", "Boston marriage", "LBJ", "Titicaca", or "frontlumps".
- In the episode where Bart and Nelson go to war, Grampa is seen writing a letter about "words that shouldn't be used on TV", one of which ("family jewels") turns out to be an example of Strange Minds Think Alike, as it was used a scene earlier.
- From the episode "Mr. Spritz Goes To Washington":
Krusty: I could even tell the FCC to take a hike. Look at this list of words they won't let me say on the air. (hands Bart a piece of paper)
Bart: Aww! All the good ones. Hmm, I never even heard of number nine.
Krusty: That's two-ing thirteen while she's eleven-ing your five.
Bart: Can I keep this?
Krusty: Sure, no twelve off my ass.
- In another episode, Krusty is banned from television for ten years for saying the word "pants" on the air during The '50s. "Pants" was once a dirty word, but in the 19th century, although Springfield is so behind the times that it may well have been naughty in the 1950s as well.
- Another episode addresses the original sketch:
Krusty's Assistant: George Carlin on the line.
Krusty: Yeah? Lawsuit? Oh, come on. My "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit was entirely different from your "Seven Words You Can't Say on TV" bit.
- Kent Brockman in a (supposedly) live newscast:
Kent: How can I prove we're live? Penis!
- South Park: In the episode "It Hits The Fan", the verboten words are revealed to represent a literal curse, each one associated with a dragon, and defended by the Knights of Standards and Practices. One of the less-well known dirty words is "Mee Krob", a Thai noodle dish.
- The Animaniacs song about Lake Titicaca ends with the Warners stating their love of saying that word... think about it for a minute, por favor.
''Oh Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca,
Why do we sing of its fame?
Lake Titicaca, yes Lake Titicaca...
'Cause we really like saying its name!
- Amazingly, Regular Show managed to get away with saying "pissed" multiple times, despite being TV-PG on primetime Cartoon Network. They eventually caught on and censored it.
- On Radio Caroline's 1977 New Year show, Dutch DJ Marc Jacobs responded to a ribbing by another DJ with the words "You motherfucker!" Jacobs later apologised on air, but since Caroline was a pirate station, there were no official reprisals.
- In 2003, during a live airing of the Golden Globe awards, lead singer Bono of U2 greeted the band's award with "this is fucking brilliant!" Surprisingly, the FCC determined that the incident was not indecent, as the usage was "spontaneous and fleeting" and did not refer to the act of fucking. No one was fined.
Media That Have Referenced American TV Censorship Standards In General
- The South Park feature film, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, brutally savaged the MPAA's rules for industry censorship as the driving force for the main story arc. Even the film's title skewered American censorship; Parker and Stone originally wanted "All Hell Breaks Loose", but apparently "Hell" was too naughty for the censors, which caused Parker and Stone to replace it with something much more subtle but much much dirtier, which was approved. The whole film is about the hypocritical and inconsistent standards of American media:
Sheila Broflovski: Remember what the MPAA says: horrific, deplorable violence is okay, as long as people don't say any naughty words! That's what this war is all about!
- The Family Guy episode "PTV" blasted the FCC with both barrels, portraying them as going so far as to censor real life.
- On Moral Orel, Frances Clara Censordoll's name and character are a Take That! at the FCC. She is a selfish Manipulative Bastard Moral Guardian with a god complex.
- South Park has never been afraid to push the envelope, and it's not on a network where naughty words are censored, but rival show Family Guy found where the absolute line is: portraying Muhammad. This led to the episode "Cartoon Wars", lampooning the whole controversy and ended up being censored — even though Muhammad wasn't mentioned, apparently An Aesop about intimidation and fear is not cool, but a mentally handicapped kid getting raped by a shark is okay. Then came "200", where they portrayed Muhammad in a bear costume, which also got complaints.
- Recess, in the episode "The Story of 'Whomps'", dealt with a made-up word ("Whomps") which was deemed offensive by the adults.
- Eric Idle, the mind behind "I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio", wrote song about the FCC after he was fined for swearing.
- The chorus of Aerosmith's "Just Push Play" has the phrase "fuckin' A" deliberately muted, the next line rationalizing that "they're gonna bleep it anyway". Subverted in the last verse, where "fuckin' A" is untouched, but "bleep" is censored. Double Subverted when it was released as a single with a completely rewritten chorus, with no "fuckin' A", censored or not.