What is it about the number 7?
Seven seas, 7 deadly sins, Seagram’s 7, 7-Up, 7-11 stores, 7-come-eleven in craps, whatever that means.
There’s also George Carlin’s 7 words you can’t say on TV. Saying them on stage got him arrested in 1972, but these days any HBO subscriber can hear them all, ad nauseum. But don’t worry. We still won’t permit them in a family newspaper.
So now we’ve got one more famous 7: the 7 awful words the innocent ears of congressional budget writers must never hear.
You know them, you’ve chuckled at them, you’ve been bewildered by them.
“Vulnerable,” “diversity,” “entitlement,” “transgender,” “fetus” – fetus! – “evidence-based” and “science-based.”
The idea behind the ban is to protect budget requests that are written by the Centers for Disease Control, the $7 billion agency whose 12,000 employees work on everything from food and water safety, to heart disease and cancer, to infectious disease outbreaks.
The CDC has been told that words like “fetus” and “transgender” could violate the professed chastity of some congressmen and could adversely affect its budget.
According to The Washington Post, an early draft of the CDC budget was returned so offending words could be corrected. The flagged words: Vulnerable, diversity and entitlement. Why? Sorry, that’s above my pay grade.
Seriously, though, for those of us who work with words for a living, even this limited word ban carries a stunning effect.
One can only be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” where “firemen” roamed the countryside burning books – books, you might note, that were filled with words.
We’ve seen book bans in our own country, some in effect even as we speak. Just three months ago, the Biloxi (Miss.) School District banned Harper Lee’s”To Kill a Mockingbird” from its eighth-grade curriculum because it made some people uncomfortable – any one of whom might now qualify as a congressional budget writer, don’t you think?
Author Madeleine L’Engle, whose classic “A Wrinkle in Time” is soon to be released in movie theaters, offered a sobering thought for moments like this.
“In any dictatorship, writers are among the first to be imprisoned, and vocabulary is quickly diminished and language deteriorates.
“Writers, if their vocabulary is not leashed, are quick to see injustice, and rouse the people to do something about it.
“We need words with which to think; kill words and we won’t be able to think and we’ll be easier to manipulate.’’
OK, we’re nowhere near there yet, but an official ban on words, even if only seven, sets a scary precedent.
Let’s hope “Fahrenheit 451’’ remains just that – a novel about a non-existent future.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.