Thursday, June 26, 2008

George Carlin was our comedic George Orwell

Most successful comedians have a niche. For some it’s politics. For others it’s observations about everyday life. For others still, it’s family. George Carlin’s niche was the English language.

Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, delved into other subjects like religion (he was against it) and politics (he was against that, too). But he always returned to language.

English is a funny language. As Carlin observed, we drive on parkways but we park on driveways. Is it any wonder that non-native speakers have difficulty navigating English’s odd twists and turns?
English is also an abused language. Words mean things, but they sometimes mean many things. In his book “The Mother Tongue,” Bill Bryson writes, “Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel, is clearly asking to be mangled.”

Too often, people deliberately choose words that obscure what they’re really saying. Used cars are now “pre-owned.” It sounds nicer in advertising copy, but it doesn’t make the car in question any less used.

When politicians are involved, of course, the stakes are higher. Consider one of Carlin’s examples: “friendly fire.” It almost makes getting killed by your own side seem pleasant. Similarly, “collateral damage,” is vague, while “dead innocent civilians” demands that we assign blame.

At the risk of overstating his influence, Carlin was our own George Orwell, only funnier. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell catalogs the faults of bad writing.

Passive voice, for example, is a favorite of anyone trying to avoid responsibility. We’ve all heard this one: “Mistakes were made.” Well, yes, mistakes were made, but who made them?

Orwell illustrated his point in his novel “1984.” He invented a simplified language, Newspeak, which the book’s totalitarian government invented in order to control its subjects. Without the right words, Orwell believed, certain thoughts are impossible.

Unlike Orwell, Carlin went for comic effect, but hidden somewhere behind the laughter was a point. Who, after all, really ever heard of a “civil” war?

There is even a point to Carlin’s infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine.
I can’t repeat any of those seven words here, even though you can now say them on cable TV. And only one of the seven — it starts with a “C” — is still truly unacceptable in most polite company. But if English is strange, then profanity, in any language, is stranger. And English profanity, by implication, is the strangest of all.

What makes one word off limits when another word, which means exactly the same thing, is not? Why can I write “urinate” but not an equivalent word starting with “P”?

In the TV series “Battlestar Galactica,” “frak” is a stand-in for the F word, but it doesn’t upset anyone. You can say “frak” 50 times in prime time without so much as getting a disapproving letter from the Federal Communications Commission.

Even within English there are oddities. In Britain, “shag” is the same as the F word. Here, we put “shagged” in the title of an Austin Powers movie. Another word is derogatory toward homosexuals here but is slang for a cigarette there.

Not all languages, however, have this problem. In Japanese, the difference between acceptable and off color is sometimes just a matter of a word’s inflection, or so I’ve read.

It’s probably a good thing Carlin didn’t live in Japan. His “Seven Words” might not have made much sense there.

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