General / Language · 2005-03-19

I call BS

[Warning: Crude language ahead.]

Alex Beam has a Boston Globe column out this week about a new book by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt called, I kid you not, On Bullshit:

Frankfurt defines ________ as “a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. A _________er is not necessarily a liar; what he says may very well be true, and he may not think that it is false. I was careful to try to make clear the differences between _________ers and liars.” …

By now, you are wondering: What exactly is ________? Apparently, it is a word that can be the title of a book published by a prestigious academic press but that cannot appear in a family newspaper. It is a word that Jon Stewart can say on late-night TV but that Comedy Central had to excise from Stewart’s Harry Frankfurt interview when it was rebroadcast during the day.

All this Match Game coyness is kind of cute but a little irritating. I do like what happened when I searched Amazon’s book section and came up with “Most popular results for bullshit:”. Yowza — there was a pageful. It’s a shame they’re just doing an exact-match search on titles. Heck, if they could detect actual bullshit, there’d probably be thousands of hits.

Coincidentally, in an electronics store today I saw that they were selling box sets of the Showtime series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. I’m a big fan; I’ve seen them perform live a couple of times and generally loved the TV show for its unsparing honesty and its ability to call bullshit on a wide variety of poseurs. Even though this was pay cable, TV guide listings are seen by all, and during the original cablecasts I remember being amused by the Tivo feed’s bowdlerization of the name to Penn & Teller: Bulls…!. As it happens, the box sets were labeled as Penn & Teller: B.S.!.

It would be nice if, sometimes, people could call a spade a _______ shovel. :-) In fact, if the book reviewers on Amazon aren’t bullshitting us, Frankfurt’s little tome sounds interesting and even insightful — so maybe he’s doing his part.