The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television by Steven Pinker

4665812 Bit of a cheat, this. It’s not a book in its own right – rather, it’s an extended extract from Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought: the title comes from George Carlin’s monologue but it’s all much less fun than it initially sounds. Enjoyable though some of The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television admittedly is, I won’t be rushing to embrace its bigger brother. So what is there to say about all this naughty talk? Well, there’s a lot about freedom of speech and Lenny Bruce. There’s the science bit: it’s the right hemisphere of the brain that seems to be implicated in swearing although there is more discussion of basal ganglia than can be good for anyone outside an undergraduate brain surgery class.* There is some good stuff about the changing attitudes to bawdy speech, not least in the way that religious swearing is far from taboo today, for example. Perhaps more interestingly, it is far less socially acceptable – and in some cases actually illegal – to make jokes based on the colour of people’s skin, their gender or their sexuality than it was even 20 years ago. But why? This leads on to the knots that legislators have tied themselves in when trying to put into statute what you can and cannot say. ‘The Clean Airwaves Act assumes that fucking is a participial adjective. But this is not correct,’ writes Pinker with a straight face. He is good on the derivation of swearwords (sucker coming from cocksucker, for instance, obvious when you think about it) and there is still a fair bit to enjoy, not least the odd dry aside. As he points out: ‘Groucho Marks might be surprised to learn that today’s universities and businesses have implemented his platform for running Fredonia in Duck Soup: no-one’s allowed to smoke or tell dirty jokes.’ Fair point. And there are some good curses that he unearths: ‘May you live like a chandelier: hang by day and burn by night’ has an undeniable music to it.

* Do such classes even exist? Sounds unlikely. If I liked the book more I might get off my motherfucking arse and look into it. But really, it’s not worth it


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