Blame "Saturday Night Live" or credit the show for being ahead of its times: A 1980 skit set at an 18th Century English ball featured Lords Worcestershire and Salisbury and the Earl of Sandwich, the namesakes, of course, of some common items. The next guests to arrive: Lord and Lady Douchebag. Tasteless hilarity ensues.
The sketch likely marked the first network comedic appearance of the variant of the D-Word, presaging by about three decades its frequent use as a prime-time punchline/insult.
The Parents Television Council, at the behest of The New York Times, counted D-word usage on TV. It’s been uttered at least 76 times this year on prime-time network shows, compared to six in 2005,the Times reported.
So does this mark progress in artistic expression, a coarsening of the popular culture or is it just a reflection of what kids are saying these days?
The discussion speaks to the impact of language, which George Carlin explored in his infamous "Seven Words You Can Never Say Television" routine. The bit became the basis of an obscenity case that wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled the FCC has a right to prohibit broadcasts with “indecent” content when children are likely to be in the audience. Back in 1972, Carlin, who scoffed at the out-sized power conferred onto mere words, probably never considered the D-word for his list.
The Times' front-page article didn't offer a show-by-show log of D-word usage. But if we’re guessing, the prime-time champion likely is "Family Guy," as spoken by Stewie Griffin (oh, out of the mouths of babes).
The word also has turned up frequently on "South Park," whose creators Matt Stone and Trey Park cleverly have noted the changing use of language on TV even as they have contributed to it (Remember the 2001 episode about the S-word being uttered in primetime on a “NYPD Blue”-like show? “South Park” tried to show the ridiculousness of the hoopla by repeating the curse dozens of times).
A more recent “South Park” installment – this month’s "The F-Word" episode – tackled what the Parker and Stone see as the evolving meaning of a nasty, three-letter anti-gay slur and its longer, six-letter variant.
To Cartman and his cronies, the word is a way to taunt “annoying, inconsiderate” jerks who make noise on Harley-Davidson motorcycles – and not a means of insulting their friend Big Gay Al and homosexuals in general.
Big Gay Al bought the argument – but not the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. As noted by The Hollywood Reporter, GLADD appreciated the attempt to take back the slur, but thought the satire would be lost on some: “If even a small number of those take from this a message that using the ‘F-word’ is okay, it worsens the hostile climate that many in our community continue to face.”
The commonality between the F-word, as re-imagined by “South Park,” and the D-word, as used on everything from “The Cleveland Show” to “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to “Community,” rests in making them all-purpose, generic insults. In fact, on the “South Park” episode, the D-word is a used at one point as a synonym for the newly constituted F-word.
“Vulgar slang has a way of waxing and waning, where we become desensitized to a word’s earlier meanings,” Timothy Jay, the author of “Cursing in America” told the Times. “I would bet most kids today couldn’t tell you what a douche bag is.”
Maybe. And the jury, for many, may be out on whether this language shift should be playing out in primetime.
But for now, we’ll let the late Carlin have the final word, from a two-decade-old routine on slurs: “They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user, the intention behind the user that makes them good or bad. Words are completely neutral. The words are innocent.”
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.