Slang-Master Jesse Sheidlower on 'South Park,' bad manners, and words that begin with F
By David Templeton
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This column is not a film review; rather , it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.
Jesse Sheidlower is still buzzing. It's 9 p.m. in New York City, a full two hours after seeing the new 88-minute South Park movie--a film that crams more dirty words (excuse me, more "free speech") into its slim running time than Kenneth Starr managed to squeeze into all those boxes of Monica evidence. Sheidlower--a senior reference editor at Random House and a noted expert on slang--is still feeling that peculiar, intellectual high that one gets from inhaling so much Lenny Bruce-style artistic expression in one sitting.
He's not alone, of course. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut--the hilarious big screen version of the audacious animated TV show--has become something of a cause célèbre among the nation's anti-censorship intelligentsia, and an R-rated Holy Grail for kids too young to get in without reverting to fraud and subterfuge (which they are, and in droves).
"I'd read reviews and articles that said the movie was very vulgar, very obscene," Sheidlower remarks, "but I thought, 'Yeah, right. OK, whatever. I have a different standard for what to call 'very obscene.' But in the first 10 minutes of South Park, I was sitting there thinking, 'Wow. This is pretty obscene.' I mean, how many times was the word fuck used in those first 10 minutes?"
"One hundred and 10 times," I quickly reply. "I was checking them off on my popcorn box."
Sheidlower solemnly pauses, savoring the thought of 110 repetitions of that most indelicate of single-syllable epithets. The lion's share of those epithets were uttered during Asses of Fire, the pivotal, hyper-flatulent film-within-the-film--a foul Canadian comedy that pollutes the minds and mouths of the underage South Park kids, inciting the irate townsfolk to increasingly desperate means, including war against Canada--that includes a giddy little song with the oft-repeated chorus "Shut your fucking face, Uncle Fucker."
"You just don't see that level of obscenity too often," Sheidlower utters, appreciatively.
Well. That's for darn sure.
Jesse Sheidlower, it must be said, holds a special connection to that robust four-letter noun/verb/adjective that upsets many people and rhymes with "chuck."
You could say he wrote the book on the subject.
The F Word, second edition (Random House, 1999; $12.50), is an affectionate and shocking compendium of creative and popular uses for that word that Norman Mailer--in the initial 1948 edition of The Naked and the Dead--was forced to render as "fug," leading Dorothy Parker to remark, on meeting the young novelist, "So you're the man who can't spell 'fuck'?" Exhaustive and alphabetical--there is every phrase from "Zipless Fuck" to "Absofuckinglutely"--The F Word contains a charming forward by Roy Blount Jr. ("If my parents were alive," he admits, "I would not be writing this") and plenty of scholarly historical background from Sheidlower.
As for the brouhaha caused by the South Park movie, and the much publicized efforts of Matt Stone and Trey Parker (the filmmakers) to avoid getting an NC-17 rating from the MPAA (according to Entertainment Weekly, Matt and Stone were forced to replace the phrase "Fucked in the ass by God" with the R-rated "God is the biggest bitch of all!"), Sheidlower is mainly just amused.
"The MPAA was apparently OK with kids seeing the gore and violence and death," he says. "But they couldn't handle a few hundred 'fucks.' I like to think that in the future people will be more offended by violence than by language.
"Thirty years ago," he points out, "you would get into a fight for using the words 'goddamn' or 'bastard' in public. Now they aren't any big deal. Even 'fuck' and 'shit' are becoming more and more mainstream and commonplace. The New York Times printed 'fuck' for the first time ever last year, quoting the Starr Report."
"There are those," I submit, "who would say that our increased acceptance of such vocabulary signals a decline in the quality of our manners."
"Well, people who would say that are wrong and stupid," Sheidlower patiently counters. "It has nothing to do with manners whatsoever. Standards of what is considered offensive in language change constantly and have for centuries. If you go back to 19th-century America, the word leg was considered so vulgar that if you said it in front of a woman she might faint."
The accepted word, by the way, was limb.
"Contrary to what you said before about manners," Sheidlower continues," I'd point out that it's the racial words and epithets that are coming to be considered vastly worse. The word nigger has far more of a social stigma on it, is far more forbidden, than the word fuck. There are people who say 'fuck' all the time who would never use a racial slur. I think this indicates that good manners are getting better, not worse."
Sheidlower is not saying that shouting "fuck" in public can't still start a fight.
"Just that there's a social difference between saying 'Fuck you,' which is still very charged, and saying 'Ah, fuck!'
"So words don't necessarily mean what they mean anymore?" I say.
"Exactly. I can't remember when it was, but somebody wrote about seeing two teenage girls on the street, and one of them looked down and said, 'Oh shit, I stepped in some doo-doo!'"
"So then," I can't help but wonder, "are there any special phrases in South Park that might end up in future editions of The F Word?"
"Sure, if it manages to work its way into the popular vocabulary," he says, then with a laugh, adds, " 'Uncle Fucker' would obviously be the one to watch."
From the July 15-21, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.