Oh, f*ck! My thoughts on swearing.

Warning: In this post I freely and openly explore the concept of profanity.  If you are offended by this, check back next week!

 

Miss Suzie had a steamboat

The steamboat had a bell (ding! ding!)

Miss Suzie went to heaven

The steamboat went to HELL-

 -O operator…

Saying bad words can be fun. Cathartic. Offensive. Funny. Disrespectful.  Let’s talk about it!

adele

I must admit, I swear more than I should. Stub my toe? FUCK! Accidentally put too much pepper in the soup? SHIT!  Sometimes I don’t even notice the words coming out.

Not too long ago Simon, Ellis and I were shopping at Trader Joe’s, and Ellis went straight to grab a mini shopping cart to push around. As he barreled past, the tall stick attached to his cart smacked me in the face without warning, knocking off my glasses.  Without thinking I instinctively blurted out FUCK! to the shock and horror of all the families standing nearby.  Simon looked back at me with a face that said “seriously, Robbie?” Embarrassed and ashamed, all I could do was smile awkwardly and try to remove myself from the situation while mouthing “I’m sorry!”

As a father, I have reflected frequently on profanity’s role in society, the family, and the individual. But at this point, I’m still full of questions about how to address the subject with my son.  Obviously I don’t want him dropping F-bombs around the playground, but does it make sense to try to censor all profanity from his world to prevent that?   If a great song has one or two bad words, do I really need to eliminate it from our playlists or do we resort to doing “earmuffs” while Ellis is around?  Won’t he hear that stuff in school anyway?  Can I say “crap” instead of “shit,” or is that bad too? At what age is it acceptable for a kid to say “that sucks” or call someone an “ass?”  Is there a place for milder versions of bad words or should all profanity be prohibited?  I really don’t know, and I’m on my journey to find out.

Stop fucking swearing, there's a baby here!

Earmuffs!

From the start of spoken language, humans have had words that were considered offensive, disrespectful or blasphemous.  From nasty words for body parts to saying G*d’s name in vain, all languages have an immense arsenal of offensive words. But what makes a word “bad”?  After all, it’s just a word!

While offensive to some, bad words can be hilarious.  Consider the immensely popular “children’s book” entitled Go the Fuck to Sleep.  It is a New York Times best seller and a total crackup. Here’s a page from the book.

go-the-fuck-to-sleep

Or how about the delightfully uncouth “censored” version of Disney’s Frozen.  Featured on Jimmy Kimmel, this video censors innocuous words from the film, letting our dirty minds fill in the blanks.  There are also “censored” versions of Sesame Street, Barney and others.

 

As funny as bad words can be, there’s a time and a place for profanity. It can add humor and expression to a situation.  It can help us express our frustration or pain.  It can also be a tool to spew hatred and negativity. It all depends on who’s talking, who’s listening, and the energy behind the word. But as a general rule: Not in public, not in front of children, and definitely not in front of your teacher.

Once a student of mine was angry and defiant when I told him to remove a black wristband with the word FUCK in bold white letters. “Come on, it’s just a word, who cares!” Clearly lacking his full frontal lobe and desperately pushing the limits for attention, I had to pull him aside to succinctly break it down for him.

fuck bracelet

When I was a little kid, I had a swearing problem. I’m not sure exactly what I would say, but my profanity was so frequent that my mom started to carry around a bottle of Tabasco sauce to punish me.  Perhaps she chose the wrong discipline technique, because now hot sauce is one of my greatest pleasures in life… So yeah, I wonder why I like to swear so much… Thanks, Mom!

Often children go through a stage where they develop a “potty mouth,” talking constantly about poop, pee, farts, butts, buttholes, etc.  What’s a parent to do?  My mom has a friend who only allows her grandson to use those words in the bathroom, and he often stays in there extra long just to repeat those words without getting in trouble.  To me, it’s not a bad compromise—he’s learning to recognize there is a time and a place for foul language, and he’s letting off some frustration at the same time!  I just hope it doesn’t have a Pavlov’s dog effect and make him angry every time he has to poop.  That would be shitty.

giphy

Swearing can be funny because it makes people feel awkward and uncomfortable (not that that is always a good thing).  Children are notorious for getting a laugh out of the forbidden nature of cuss words.  Exhibit A: “the penis game.”  Never played?  Oh, you’ve been missing out! The game consists of people, usually middle-schoolers, taking turns saying the word “penis” louder and louder until one of them gets in trouble or is unwilling to continue.  Go ahead, give it a try today at your public library, bank or place of work!

penis game

Derrrr…. Come on, penis isn’t even a bad word.

What about the Pen 15 club?  Don’t you want to become a member? All you have to do is let me write PEN 15 on your hand.  But don’t be surprised later when your dad asks why you have PENIS written on you in black Sharpie. Oh, middle school…

Innocent little Krissy asking a question in Mrs. Kelly's 8th grade language arts class.

Innocent little Kristy asking a question in Mrs. Kelly’s 8th grade language arts class… She has no idea.

And then there’s the classic rhyme about “Miss Susie” that goes with a hand clapping game.  Kids get a thrill out of almost saying “hell,” “ass,” etc.  I’m pretty sure I started chanting that at age five…

“Miss Susie had a steamboat,
the steamboat had a bell.
Miss Susie went to heaven
and the steamboat went to Hell–

O, operator,
Please give me number nine
And if you disconnect me
I’ll kick your be–

’hind the ’frigerator,
there was a piece of glass
Miss Susie sat upon it
and broke her little

Ask me no more questions,
Tell me no more lies,
The boys are in the bathroom
zipping up their

Flies are in the meadow
The bees are in the park
Miss Susie and her boyfriend
are kissing in the

D-A-R-K
D-A-R-K
D-A-R-K
Dark, dark, dark”

Hee hee hee! Profanity is FUN!

Hee hee hee! Profanity is FUN!

Swearing can be so much fun that it even inspires us to learn how to be offensive in other languages!  Besides, who needs to know how to order food, ask for the restroom or call for help when insulting someone’s mother is so much more useful!

Translating profanity from foreign languages can be a bizarre and perplexing exercise.  For example, who knew calling someone ‘“big goat” (cabrón) in Mexico could incite an aggressive altercation?  The insult goes back to the concept of a “cuckold,” a man who has grown horns because his wife is unfaithful.  The symbolism of the horns is explained here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuckold

In Mexican Spanish, even the word madre or “mother” can be vulgar.  Taking it far beyond “yo momma” jokes, Mexicans have so many vulgar expressions containing the word madre that the word itself is often considered profane. If something “smells like mothers” or “huele a madres,” it means it smells like shit. Of if you say “me vale madre,” which literally means “it’s worth a mother to me,” you’re really saying “I don’t give a shit.”  But remember, while madre is vulgar and to be avoided, padre (father) means “cool” or “awesome.” Gotta love the patriarchy!

385px-Profanity

As a high school Spanish teacher, I had my advanced classes list all the bad words they had heard in Spanish. Then I explained each word without translating them into English.  Don’t call me a bad influence, I am an educator!  After all, no one wants to be the clueless “gringo” smiling obliviously when someone calls them a “pinche puto.”  Knowledge is power, baby.  Knowledge is power.

If you’re uncultured and immature like me, here’s a website full of profane words in foreign languages: http://www.youswear.com/  Go forth, and be a citizen of the world!  And don’t blame me if you get your ass kicked.

Even if you speak the same language as someone, don’t expect to find the same words offensive. Between UK and US English, or Spanish from different Spanish speaking countries, misusing a common word can turn into a hilarious misunderstanding or a situation of gross disrespect. For example, in the UK and Australia, “fanny” is a foul word for vagina.  So please don’t ask where you can purchase a fanny pack while you’re in Melbourne.  At the same time, don’t have a heart attack if a Londoner asks if you have any extra “fags,” because he’s just asking for a cigarette.

Umm... WHAT???

Umm… WHAT???

In Spain, the word coger means to grab, pick up, or grasp.  “Coger el telefono” (to pick up the phone) or “coger frutas” (to pick fruit) sound quite different in Latin America, where the word means “to fuck” (sexually).

Instead of using full-fledged profanity, most people, especially around children, use milder versions of these colorful words, called “minced oaths.”

Examples of these euphemisms include darn, gosh, jeez, crap, freaking, etc.  These can be especially fun and creative, like “shut the front door!” or “H-E double hockey sticks!”  My sister is famous her constant and creative usage of the word “fezie,” as in, “What the fezie!” or “Holy fezie!”

Minced oaths even exist in other languages. “Híjole” is an abbreviation of “hijo de puta” or “son of a bitch,” effectively making it the Mexican version of “son of a!”  Similarly, “ostras” meaning “oysters” is a non-offensive version of “Hostia” which comes from the incredibly offensive  Spanish expression “Me cago en la Hostia,” or “I shit on the holy Host.”

gateway-profanity-not-ok-270

When it comes to small children, which words are off-limits?  How does that change depending on age? What about minced oaths? Hearing a kid swear or even “fake” swear can be shocking and embarrassing for the parents.  Even hearing a child say “this sucks” can be unsettling. Or what if they say, “Are you effing serious?” Oh hail no.

So does that mean I can’t say anything remotely naughty?  If I can’t shout “CRAP!” when I stub my toe or say “oh my gosh!” when I’m surprised, what can I say?

I really have no idea what naughty words are acceptable at what age.  Heck, so many minced oaths don’t even seem bad to me anymore.  I guess it’s up to each family to figure that out as they go along.  That’s what parenting is all about.

Clearly we can’t shelter kids forever.  Many tweens and adolescents associate profanity with being more adult and therefore cool (not that adults are cool, ewww). In middle school, when I was cooler than the world, I started to swear incessantly, mindlessly inserting bad words into my speech instead of using more vivid, descriptive vocabulary. This became a habit lasting into adulthood, leading me to swear without even knowing I was doing it.

parental advisory artwork

I think the bottom line is to be conscious of what we say and recognize how it could affect those around us. As adults we must be open with our children and always be ready to explain why something is inappropriate.  If we consistently model good behavior and teach our kids the cultural rules and roles for profanity, we can all have fun with language without getting into too much trouble.

Profanity-is-making-a-splash-in-book-titles-F5FCI5M-x-large

All in all, whether we curse like sailors or think “jeepers” is profane, it’s important to be careful with our words and be sensitive to others.

 

 

What are your thoughts on the topic of profanity?  Parents and non-parents alike, please share your thoughts, comments and personal experiences below!

 

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14 comments

  1. I really like your post, Robbie! I think this is something that many people deal with… Even without children. I was raised with cussing allowed, although my mother sometimes frowned upon our use of certain words.

    The two basic rules we abided by were:

    1) Use of profanity was not allowed in a malicious or derogatory manor towards other ppl. We could cuss if we dropped and broke a glass, but no using profanity/calling bad names to my sister when she lost my favorite necklace (we had to work that out in a less aggressive verbal conversation or fist fight ;)).

    2) My mom required us to know what the words meant. When we would come home from school with a new cuss word, my parents asked what it was and the proper context was discussed (knowledge, man).

    I think I have taken these things into my own use of profanity. I love how f*ck can enhance a story or reflect feeling. But I think the word should serve a purpose and not be used willy nilly. What I mean by that is the “naughty” words should have a certain impact, just like all other words, and using them in the proper context for your story, expression of feelings, and general conversation is important. In my mind, I relate it to someone using really big/complex language when it is not applicable to the conversation at hand.

    I don’t think the word itself should be the issue… More emphasis should be placed on the use, context, and tone.

    1. Sorry it took me an eternity to respond… I love your take on this. It sounds like your parents had a great handle on what can be such a difficult thing to manage with kids.

  2. A thought provoking post, Robbie. A topic on parenting that isn’t a bore to read. I, too, believe profanity has it’s place and the negative/positive connotations are not inherent in the words themselves, but our reactions to them. I’ve learned you can’t please everyone so just speak from your heart and if a curse word happens to come out — so be it. But we are responsible for our words so choose wisely.

  3. Great topic Robbie! I, personally, have not been successful at censoring the bad words to quite the degree I’d hoped to when Jaager was a baby, and now 9.5 years into parenthood the kids have had their fair share of exposure to the swearing. In fact, like sex, it’s a topic we talk about openly and at a depth they can developmentally handle. They are delivered the consistent message about how there’s a time and a place for it all to fit in and that, like many things, it’s actually a privilege (to be able to swear) that they will have to earn over time. Mainly in the way that it takes skill and a standing reputation for being well spoken and a good citizen they’ll know it takes time to be able to both swear and maintain the respect of those around you. And I’m sure they’ll let it get away from them at some point and I’ll have to reel it back in as they experiment with life. CHEERS to parenting and the ways it makes us grow as people and adults!- M.

    1. I think that’s a great outlook. I feel it’s important to let kids deal with real issues at a young age so they can develop maturity and feel open to be honest with us and with themselves.

  4. I love this! I’ve had an ongoing argument with various family members (some with kids, some without) and even my parents about the different approaches to swearing around kids. I’m an advocate for not censoring because like you said, it’s just words and I think cussing really allows oneself to express things they can’t necessarily get across without it.
    There’s an actor/philosopher/writer named Stephen Fry who said something along the lines of, that if an alien were to observe our society, they would see that the words used to describe the most awful things we do as humans, such as torture or murder, are used freely everyday. We say “Oh, that line is torture.” At the same time, we censor the words that perhaps describe the best parts or things we do as a society, such as create more life (where “fuck” being the description of this, is censored). Ever since I heard Stephen Fry say that, I’ve been thinking about this.
    I asked my cousins, who openly cuss (not overly, but enough where the kids know the words), how they go about teaching their kids and how they don’t have problems with them at school or anything. I did this because I want to do the same. They said they simply explain to them that some people get offended at those words, but it’s okay to use them at home if they’re feeling frustrated and know what they’re saying. One day, their youngest was having trouble articulating her feelings about another girl in her class, and she used “damn” to help describe it. My cousin simply accepted the answer, told her it was okay to feel that way as long as the other girl didn’t get hurt and she didn’t say it to her.
    I could go on, I really love this topic! But whatever anyone does, children will be fine! 🙂

  5. A very thought provoking post, Robbie. Also interesting comments from others. I believe that words ARE things, and that they do have power. Personally I draw a very distinct line at using God’s name in vain, or even the seemingly harmless “Jesus Christ”, because of my personal beliefs. I do enjoy the occasional cuss word. There is a satisfaction in saving those words for those particular moments where other forms of expression just don’t seem enough. Otherwise, let’s use our vocabulary, people!

    In regard to parenting, I always tried to be the best possible example for my kids on all levels (kids bring out the best in us) so did not, or tried not to, swear during the formative years. As children got older (think high school/college) this guidline became fuzzier. Now that I am a Grandma I have had to be reminded several times NOT to use “bad words” in front of my grandson. Role reversal! Sorry, Ellis!

    Thanks for the blog Robbie.

  6. Robbie, you have such a delightful mind. This was an excellent piece, and I hope that you hear from many people in your age bracket who will share their experiences. We were not allowed to swear as children, but as adults, anything went. You learn from observation when it is not OK to use certain words.
    I think that children are often delighted by the thrill of the forbidden, and cursing certainly fits that category.

  7. Great thoughts on this Robbie. I also swear without thinking and worry about how it is perceived by children in my life and more so, by people in my professional circle. I dropped an f-bomb today and immediately wished I could take it back. My parents were pretty laid back on language when I was a kid. My mother having a potty mouth of her own gave up quickly on my swearing, my father only pointed out how unintelligent it made me sound. Now as an adult, I wish I had a bit more awareness surrounding when I use these words.

    I know you and Simon will find a good way to handle this with Ellis as he grows up!

    p.s. I pre-apologize for swearing when Ellis is around, apparently I do it without any control.

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