OK, what’s the difference between beep and bleep?
Seriously, what’s the beeping difference?
Oh, wait, should that be “what’s the bleeping difference”?
Well, I’m sure you can tell me. Beep refers to what car horns and electronic sensors do. Bleep refers to what electronic censors do.
Not that it’s exclusively so. The word bleep wasn’t invented to refer to the censorship tone. Indeed, it wasn’t used to refer specifically to the beep of censorship on broadcasts until around 1970, but it came into use in the 1950s (two decades after beep showed up) to refer to electronic tones.
Presumably high electronic tones, naturally. The /i/ vowel signifies that. A medium tone would be a “bloop” and a lower tone a “blaap”, or something like that. But you also would expect the tone to have a little inflection of some sort at the beginning – not quite a tweedle, but an alternation of pitch, tone quality, or both. Otherwise, why the /l/? It might as well be beep.
Or, for that matter, oooo. That’s what my brother and I said in our young years when imitating censored speech from television. “Give me that oooo thing or I’ll oooo your oooo, you oooo.” (No need for easy coherence.) Because, really, the bleep of censorship is a simple tone, typically 1000 hertz (in musical terms, an annoyingly flat soprano C), generally a sine wave or something similarly plain, lacking in high and low harmonics.
But never mind. The question is not what everyone can hear; it’s what everyone knows. And everyone knows that when you censor a word, it’s bleep. In fact, you can see it often enough in printed text, when it’s emulating spoken (broadcast) text. “Get your bleeping car out of my bleeping driveway or I’ll cut your bleep off.”
“Cut your bleep off?” Now, what word could coherently go there that’s vulgar enough to merit a bleep? Well, of course, there’s a wide variance in judgment about what is bleepworthy. I remember hearing a mention on TV of the movie The Best Little bleep in Texas. Yes, that’s right, whorehouse merited a bleep on that TV station.
Really, it gets to where you can heighten the effect of vulgarity by bleeping something. Not knowing the word, people will fill in the blank with something more outré than was actually there. Censors really should look before they bleep!
But most of the time, you know well enough what word goes there. “Bleep off, you bleeping motherbleeper! I’ve had enough of putting up with your bullbleep!” It’s rather like the euphemisms we use: “Frack off, you fricking mofo! I’ve had enough of putting up with your BS!” Everybody knows what words are being replaced; they’re often barely masked anyway. And, for that matter, it’s permissible to refer to the same things using other words. We can talk about “sex” and “defecation” and so on, probably not over dinner but certainly on TV. So why bother at all?
One thing that’s fairly obvious is that when the vulgar words are being used, they’re often not being used denotatively at all. If I say “Get your bleeping dog off my lawn,” it’s quite unlikely that I mean that the dog is actually bleeping right there on my lawn. Rather, what we have are words for things that were at one time taboo for discussion in any form in polite company (one might at most advert to them in the most glancing, indirect way imaginable) and acquired a certain taboo force in the utterance as a result. The act of speaking of these things was a transgression.
And so if one wished to express anger or frustration or something else that called for an expression of rupture with politeness, an expression of transgression of social norms as a way of responding to a situation that has in some way transgressed one’s own standards, one could use them without semantic value – as expletives (expletive = “filler”) – simply for their speech act force.
By speech act I mean what you’re doing when you say something. When you utter a taboo expression, you are breaking a taboo; you are transgressing a social norm. Your act is “I transgress!” and thus “I disregard polite norms! I wish to be offensive!” Interestingly, they can have the effect of offending more strongly than expressions that, while not vulgar, are denotatively much more hurtful. If someone on TV says “You’re a stupid, worthless person who never should have been born,” that won’t get bleeped; if you replace “stupid, worthless person who never should have been born” with a reference to the rectal sphincter, it probably will get bleeped. In other words, it’s a matter of pure conventional function, just as much as a word like hello communicates acknowledgement of another person’s presence and please communicates that you don’t have the right to demand something of the other person.
And these vulgarities have retained that speech act force in large measure even after the loss of denotative taboo, though the force is gradually weakening. Indeed, what word is now the most offensive word you can say? Many people would say it’s a word that communicates racial hatred – a word that refers to a member of another race but that communicates contempt in so doing, and draws on a history of contempt, repression, and slavery. Yes, the n-word is supplanting the f-word for the worst thing you can say (perhaps excepting if you’re a member of the race referred to, and even then with limitations). After all, if you say the f-word, you’re a crude vulgarian but not an uncommon one, but if you say the n-word, you’re a bigot, a racist. Which is certainly much worse. It actually hurts people.
And does the n-word get bleeped? I think increasingly it does. I don’t watch enough TV to say for sure, but I know that it’s getting censored in print, not just in quotations in news stories but, famously, in an edition of Huckleberry Finn (wherein the word was not originally used as deliberate transgression in the same was as it is today, but the rationale is that these words have powerful effects on readers’ reflexes), and lately in a book by Joseph Conrad now available under the title The N-Word of the Narcissus.
No, really. It’s true! Don’t say WTF! (Or should that be WTbleep?)