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How American delicacy turned Belgium into a dirty word

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Because all the Americans I know tend to think that we're in a progressive, modern country, it sometimes surprises us to learn that other nations consider us big ol' prudes. And it's not just France! Our delicate sensibilities have been catered to by the English in a maneuver that gave us one of the better dirty words out there.

Anyone who has read more than oh, say, five of my pieces knows that I like me some Douglas Adams. I read the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series when I was a kid and every few years I go back and read as much Adams as I can get my hands on. The amount varies depending on what library system I'm using and which books I've brought with me in my latest move. My hands-down favorite book of his is Life, the Universe, and Everything, which is not only pants-wettingly funny, but a philosophically coherent look at the problems associated with living in a universe where time travel exists. From the basic problem of running into people again and again throughout time to a look at artistic integrity and how it can suffer if the artist gets retroactively rich and famous, it's both hilarious and smart.


So, understandably, that's one of the books that I've carried around with me all the time. I never got to see a version that was different from the one I got in America as a kid. Recently, though, I got the audio book, and listened to it as I fell asleep at night. That worked, until I was rudely awakened by the use of the word "fuck."

In the version I'd been reading for years, there's a scene at a party. At this party, Arthur - the main character of the series - talks to a guy carrying a weird black bag, and the guy snubs him. When he asks a woman about the snubbing, she tells him that the guy was carrying an award, and wanted Arthur to ask him about it. He asks what the award was, and she replies that it's "The Most Gratuitous Use of the Word 'Belgium' in a Serious Screenplay." This confuses Arthur, and he tries to make polite conversation by asking if she's ever been to Belgium. This causes a little uproar and she says that they need to confine that kind of language to "something artistic." Arthur remains confused, but the book explains the exchange to the reader:

In today's modern Galaxy there is of course very little still held to be unspeakable. Many words and expressions which only a matter of decades ago were considered so distastefully explicit that, were they merely to be breathed in public, the perpetrator would be shunned, barred from polite society, and in extreme cases shot through the lungs, are now thought to be very healthy and proper, and their use in everyday speech and writing is seen as evidence of a well-adjusted, relaxed and totally un****ed-up personality. . . . But even though words like "joojooflop," "swut," and "turlingdrome" are now perfectly acceptable in common usage there is one word that is still beyond the pale. The concept it embodies is so revolting that the publication or broadcast of the word is utterly forbidden in all parts of the Galaxy except for use in Serious screenplays.
There is also, or was, one planet where they didn't know what it meant, the stupid turlingdromes.


In the British version, the girl just said that award was for the most gratuitous use of the word "fuck" in a serious screenplay, and the conversation went on from there. That's what I heard as I was peacefully drifting off, trying to dream about baseball and apple pie and how good red, white, and blue look together. After I had leaped out of bed and found some pearls to clutch, I checked online to see what the story behind this ear-defiling difference was. Adams' American publishers thought that the language was too rough, and insisted on the passage taken out. They also asked Adams to take out two uses of the word "asshole," and one use of the word "shit." Adams replaced "asshole" with "kneebiter," and "shit," with "swut," but he outdid himself when replacing the word "fuck." The passage was so popular that it caused "Belgium" to be a frak-like fake dirty word in some circles.

The entire incident leaves me with mixed feelings. I don't like censorship, but there's no denying that the Belgium passage is funnier, especially with the embroidery that Adams added to make it fit. If we got that level of improvement every time we denied people the ability to swear in art, imagine the stuff we'd have gotten out of Scorsese. Still, I suppose we can't expect Belgium-level improvisation every time.


Top Image: Dan Gerhard