July 19, 2006

Words of curse

Greetings from the youth and popular culture desk at Language Log Plaza. Ben Zimmer's two posts about shit brought to my fragile little mind the fifth season premiere of South Park, an episode called "It Hits the Fan". If you haven't seen it, you can get the gist of the episode here and here -- and here's the script. It kicks off with Cartman telling Kyle, Stan, and Kenny that someone will utter the word shit for the first time ever on network television, on the TV show Cop Drama. Everyone in South Park gathers around their televisions to catch the momentous event:

Mitchell:Just understand that it's my job. I still think you're a good cop.
Frank:Well, Mitchell. I guess you're gonna do what you're gonna do. Let's just try and stay friends no matter what.
Mitchell:You're right. Maybe I'll ss-see you around.
Frank:Goodbye. Oh, and Mitchell? [voice lowers to a whisper] You... got some shit on the side of your mouth right there.
Mitchell:Oh, yeah, that ol' thing, yeah.
Viewers:... Wwooww!!!

Now that it's OK to say shit, the teachers at the school have to teach the children how to use of the word appropriately: namely, that it can only be used if it doesn't refer to actual shit or shitting. As Mr. Garrison clarifies to his kindergarten class:

You can say "I have to poop and shit," or "Oh, shit, I have to poop," but not "I have to shit." Are we all clear?

And Ms. Choksondik gets a little more technical with her fourth graders:

The adjective form is now also acceptable. For example, "The weather outside is shitty." However, the literal adjective is not appropriate. For example, "My bad diarrhea made the inside of the toilet bowl shitty, and I had to clean it with a rag, which then also became shitty." That's right out!

The episode later takes a bizarre turn: people saying shit start to die by coughing their insides out. It turns out that shit is one of several "words of curse" that were originally responsible for the Black Plague, which has now revisited the world thanks to the freedom given to the word by Cop Drama. Such is the power of language, as the kids conclude towards the end of the show in their usual moral-of-the-show-clarification:

Kyle:"Curse words" -- they're called that because they are a curse. We have to go back to only using curse words in rare, extreme circumstances.
Stan:And besides, too much use of a dirty word takes away from its... impact. We believe in free speech and all that, but... keeping a few words taboo just adds to the fun of English.
Cartman:So please, everyone, from now on you've got to try and watch your language.

[ Comments? ]

[ Update --

This E! Online article on the episode refers to shit as the S-Bomb, except when directly quoting a Comedy Central executive:

"What the show is saying is that 'shit' is a common word," Comedy Central executive vice president Bill Hilary tells the New York Post. "What does it mean? It means poo."

I suppose that, just as the NYT will only take shit from the president, E! Online will only take shit from entertainment execs.

-- end update ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 19, 2006 11:13 AM