Words for Potent Jerks

It is amazing how a phrase can emerge seemingly out of nowhere to become the statement du jour — used, overused and ultimately abused. Last year, there was "low-hanging fruit" everywhere. Today, everyone’s being "thrown under the bus."

Sometimes, it’s just one word. "As a writer, you’re always reaching for a more potent way to call somebody a jerk," Dan Harmon, the creator of the new NBC sitcom "Community" told The New York Times. In a surprisingly controversial front-page story Nov. 14, Times reporter Edward Wyatt tried to identify the zeitgeist by one hot "potent" word for jerk: "douche."

 In total, the word has surfaced at least 76 times already this year on 26 primetime network series, according to research by the Parents Television Council, which compiled the statistics at the request of The New York Times. That is up from 30 uses on 15 shows in all of 2007 and just six instances on four programs in 2005.

 Harmon explained: "This is a word that has evolved in the last couple of years — a thing that sounds like a thing you can’t say."

 The word has "evolved" so much that the excuse-makers for trashy talk are suggesting that hip teens today don’t even mean to toss the word in a vulgar way, since they probably don’t even know the word’s feminine-hygiene origins. Which raises the question: Then how would it "sound like a thing you can’t say"? How would it have any naughtiness attached to it?

 Bloggers and trashy gossip sites scolded The Times for using a scold like PTC in its story. One even implied The Times should hire its own staff to watch the five broadcast networks for nine months at a time to avoid any association with annoying pressure groups who scandalously fail to love all the vulgar words. But the story was another fascinating episode in Hollywood’s ridiculous attempts to explain itself when this kind of raw data is exposed in the nation’s most prestigious establishment newspaper.

 When confronted by questions about D-word-employing shows in the "family hour" like her network’s "The New Adventures of Old Christine," Nina Tassler, the president of CBS Entertainment, commented that the "family hour" was antiquated and CBS shows "merely reflect a different family dynamic."

 That "different dynamic" is the assumption that families don’t watch television together, and that if anyone under 12 is watching sleazy shows at 8 p.m., it’s the fault of careless parents, not the blameless vulgarity distributors. (It was just last year that Tassler was touting their CBS’s ’70s-polyester-orgy flop, "Swingtown," as "something fun and fresh in the summer … the summer gives you a kind of different license." She said that sensationalistic series was right in her "sweet spot.")

 But there were funnier quotes in the Times story. "We are still in the line-drawing business," said Martin D. Franks, executive vice president for planning, policy and government relations at the CBS Corporation. "We may not have a formal family hour at 8 o’clock, but we are trying to be respectful of our audience and who makes up our audience at a particular time of day."

 Forget it. The Times reported that recent research by Barbara K. Kaye of the University of Tennessee and Barry S. Sapolsky of Florida State University found that in 2005 television viewers were more likely to hear offensive language during the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. hours than at 10 p.m.

 The Times also found that TV producers think the recent "evolution" of cable stations re-running bedtime shows in mid-afternoon isn’t a reason for more caution, but a reason for more carelessness. Neal Baer, an executive producer of the sex-crimes show "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," said that because his show was repeated in syndication and on cable during daytime hours, producers "could not worry" about who might see it. "It’s hypocritical to say that you have to have shows on broadcast networks at 10, but they run at 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon on cable," Baer said. "Kids have access to cable." In fact, TNT will run an "SVU" marathon all day on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

 People need to listen to Hollywood, for their words may be foul, but they are quite clear. Hollywood believes broadcast standards aren’t fair. They are not in the line-drawing business. The only use for rules is to break them for fun and profit. The only use for words in a script is to search for "a thing that sounds like a thing you can’t say."