Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Oh, fxxx!" The first recorded naughty word

OK then, we already covered this Volta Labs business, but I just made a discovery on the "official" site (, which was originally set up to transcribe those famous Au clair de la lune recordings made by (blahblahblah) Martinville. You know, that French guy from 1860 who wrapped lamp-blackened paper around a cylinder, shouted into it ("Wheeeeee-hawken!"), and put it away because he didn't know how to play it back. 

Like anything that has been sealed into a drawer and considered useless for 132 years, the Volta Labs recordings are equally fascinating. Making you wonder if this whole thing is like an archaeological dig, with dozens or hundreds of other fascinating failed or semi-successful experimental sound recordings out there waiting to be newly-deciphered by computer.

This disc is obviously the prototype of a CD, previously unplayable and thought to be relatively unimportant. After all that Au Clair business, however, everyone was scrambling to get their discs, cylinders and ancient clay jars played back for public consumption. (No kidding, some people think spinning clay water jars somehow picked up the voices of Adam and Eve. For details, watch William Shatner's Weird or What?)

These experimental Volta discs were stashed in a locked drawer in the Smithsonian somewhere, along with Lincoln's DNA and other weird-or-what stuff. Someone has conveniently transcribed the words, some of which are kind of garbled. The person reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb (probably a sendup of Edison's supposed "first words" on a tin foil cylinder) keeps on interrupting the flow, first by what sounds like an elephant in the studio (poor elephant!), or someone forcefully blowing his nose.

The feeling is that something keeps going wrong with the sound equipment, though our narrator soldiers on. But keep on listening. According to, when the guy says, "Oh, no!" he's not really saying "oh, no!" at all. In fact, this is the first known obscene remark in recorded history.

What he's really saying is "oh, fuck!"

As with any other ambiguous sound, you don't hear it until you know what you are listening for. But it's definitely there, recorded for posterity, then hidden under the sands of time, or in some dusty locked drawer in the Smithsonian.

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