June 23, 2005

Adios, FCC?

The genie is out of the bottle. A few weeks ago, Anthony Lane used the word fucking in a New Yorker movie review, to express his exasperation with George Lucas. In the June 13-20 issue of the same magazine, David Sedaris describes his hostile neighbor on an airplane as directing the air nozzle above her head in his direction, as "a final fuck-you before settling down for her nap". The May 26 issue of Nature printed a fictional comment on a hypothetical presidential statement about bird flu preparedness: "Ready, my ass." And according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was cringing Tuesday after he was captured on a news video a day earlier using street slang for a common vulgarity at the end of an interview with a Houston TV reporter.

"Adios, mofo," the governor said into a live microphone and video camera after being interviewed at an Austin studio via satellite by Ted Oberg of KTRK-TV. The station aired the clip, which was taped Monday afternoon, during its newscasts Tuesday and included the fact that Perry called later to apologize.

For those foreign readers whose command of American slang is incomplete, mofo is a conventional orthographic representation for a slurred fast-speech rendition of "motherfucker". The first two citations in the OED are

1967 H. S. THOMPSON Hell's Angels 33 The ‘Mofo’ club from San Francisco.
1970 R. D. ABRAHAMS Positively Black vi. 154 Soul is walkin' down the street in a way that says, ‘This is me, muh-fuh!’

At least, mofo started out that way -- I think it's now taken on its own spelling pronunciation, in the style of tsk and phooey and other such orthographic expedients.

Anyhow, given all of this, I'm slightly surprised that Language Hat was "greatly amused" that Geoff Nunberg "slipped one past whoever monitors Fresh Air for decency" in his commentary yesterday:

Unless you're one of those freaks of nature who can soak this stuff up effortlessly, most of what you've got left of the poems you've learned is only snips and snatches—"My heart aches, and a something something pains my sense"; "I will arise and go now, and go to whatchamacallit"; "Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad/They may not mean to but they do."

As Hat points out

That last quote is the opening of perhaps the best-known English poem of the last few decades, Philip Larkin's "This Be The Verse"; I can't imagine that anybody who's once heard or read the line "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" could possibly half-remember it as "Ta tum ta tum, your mum and dad."

True for the poetry and memory, but the FCC has no regulations against on-air quotations whose (unread) context includes forbidden words. Nor is it forbidden to evoke that context with metrical placeholders like "ta tum ta tum". After all, this is more indirect than bleeping taboo words is.

Anyhow, I wonder whether the FCC will fine KTRK-TV $500,000 for each airing of Gov. Perry's valediction, as the law apparently calls on them to do:

(link) ...the term 'profane', used with respect to language, includes the words `shit', `piss', `fuck', `cunt', `asshole', and the phrases `cock sucker', `mother fucker', and `ass hole', compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms).'

If so, I wonder whether the station will send the governor the bill. This would be the next logical step in what Stuart Benjamin called the FCC's "fucking brilliant regulatory strategy".

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 23, 2005 09:37 AM