From the foul mouths of babes

A few mornings ago, while my husband was getting ready for work, we got into a small argument about the use of swear words around our son. He was giving me grief because I don’t necessarily check my potty-mouth around the baby, but I do jump on my husband about his foul language. I tried to explain to him that there is a difference because I use profanity differently, but he laughed at me and called me nuts. While my nutsness is not really a question, it’s inconsequential since I’m right.

If you’re offended by 4 letter words, I’ll just warn you that this post would not be appropriate for prime time. But I do have to wonder how the hell you forgive lesbian monkey porn, manatee porn, frog sex (including a toad orgy), orgasmatrons, and any post by bug_girl, but you’d prefer to close your ears to that what lies beneath the bleep. That said, I will now begin using words not safe for basic cable and attempt to defend my case for why it’s not that big of a fucking deal.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not looking forward to my son blurting out his first “mutha fucker”. He is 7 months old right now, and I can’t help but beam as he crawls across the floor, looking at me, saying “Mama!” as he approaches me. Or when he looks at my husband, smiles, and says “dad-dad”. He sits on the floor and signs for “dog” and “milk” regardless of whether he is actually trying to say “dog” or “milk”. But I know he is going to learn more words. And he will learn more signs. And he will learn “those” words. And he will learn “that” sign. I will not beam when those words are said and that sign is made by him, but it is inevitable. And once he learns them, he will use them. There’s nothing I can do about it.

The whole key to whether or not my child is “allowed” to say something should be based on what he is saying, not necessarily the words he uses. For example, there is a world of difference between saying “You’re a mother fucking cocksucker” vs. “Fucking shit balls!” But there is essentially no difference between “You’re a goddamn shit head” vs. “You’re a stupid poo head.”

Saying something cruel does not become more or less cruel based on the words you use. It’s the message that makes it cruel. Perhaps of the cocksucker, shit head and poo head examples one is generally considered to be more polite. But if we’re going to be really honest, we have to admit (for most of us anyway) there is far less shame in sucking cock than having poo on one’s head (or poo for a head).

I don’t want my son saying mean things to people. I don’t want him doing mean things to people. I don’t want my son to be an asshole. And that’s the lesson I’m gong to teach him: Don’t be an asshole. It doesn’t matter what words you use if you’re being a dick.

Who is he hurting if he falls, nails his funny bone on concrete and yells out “holy mother fucking goddamn shit that hurt!”? Perhaps a couple of god-fearing old ladies sitting on the park bench nearby might be offended, and they wouldn’t have been (though I would be) if he yelled out “crickey mommy-frog gosh golly darn crappity crap that darn diddly hurt”. But he didn’t say anything insulting, hurtful, slanderous or cruel. If he had fallen and yelled out, “Piss off, old bitches on the fucking bench. What the fuck do you think you’re looking at, cuntrags?” Now, that would be a different story, but that story doesn’t change if he yells out, “What are you looking at, you old hags? Why don’t you mind your own beezwax and go back to knitting?” Whether he drops the dreaded c-bomb or accuses them of gasp knitting, his message is clear; it is the same and it is offensive. (And, for the record, if I ever get wind of that message, my response will be just as clear and offensive.)

There is absolutely no reason that one word should be considered worse than another when they have the exact same meaning. If someone tells me he is going to leave the room to go “take a shit”, he cannot improve upon that statement by saying, “take a dump” or “make poo” or “poop”. There is no word that can be used in place of the word “shit” to make me feel better about his candor. I would prefer if he just said “please excuse me”, leaving out any information detailing his feces altogether, no matter how crudely or politely he chooses to describe them.

And a word only has as much power as people are willing to give it. Take the words “n****r” and “bitch”. I am hard-pressed to come up with a word that is considered more offensive than the word “n****r”. In fact, I debated even using it as an example because, even in quotes, it’s a word that makes me uncomfortable. But why? Without getting into the politics of the word, the short story of it is that we, as users of the language, have given it that power. As long as people continue to let it have that connotation it will have that connotation. In junior high and high school we were assigned to read books with the words “n****r” and “bitch” in them. We saw the words in context, and they didn’t seem like such a big deal.

My point is that they’re all just words. So why can’t we just use them like they’re just words? Teaching our kids not to say “those words” doesn’t stop them from saying them. So why don’t we just concentrate on it being less about the word itself and more about what we are trying to say when using the words we use.

Understand, I’m not excusing poor manners, but swapping out an offensive word for a word that alludes to the offensive word doesn’t magically make it polite.

So… who’s fucking with me on this one?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. This is very interesting but I find myself disagreeing with you entirely.

    Words have power because we give them power. Constant swearing reduces the power of an expletive or a good insult. I deliberately curtail my swearing. It is most often unnecessary as we have a wonderfully rich language with many suitable words that convey more meaning than a swear word. We can also borrow from any other languages that we know where ours fails us (although my French is limited to “merde”, my Greek to “malakas”, and my German to “arschloch”, “saukerl” and “saumensch”). By doing this I increase the power of any swearing that I engage in. Its rarity provides additional impetus. When it serves as a placeholder word then it has practically no power at all except to highlight the ignorance of the speaker.

    As a parent I want my children to not limit themselves to the typical vocabulary of a stereotypical scaffolder. They’re going to pick up expletives in the street or in the playground. My hope is that they will view them with disdain as wasteful or as a sign of a poor upbringing. In practice it is probably daring and rebellious to swear among their peers.

    When my children do act offensively to others I don’t particularly want them to increase that offence by adding power to their comments by using swear words. Arguments should be reasonable and use reasonable words. Heated arguments should be no different although the choice of language will certainly differ.

    Which has more power: “You’re being ridiculous” or “Your spouting shit”? Both have essentially the same meaning and dismissive tone but the latter also adds insult to the addressed person. The cruelty of the phrase is enhanced. Perhaps that is the purpose of swearing. If so then we should want to minimise it. not accept it.

  2. No habla Español?

    I let my kids express themselves freely in the family (and they do), but I insist that they be careful in public (and they are!).

    The latter is because word choice is like a dress choice: you´re free to wear what to want, but you can expect a suitable reaction. Imagine not easing the *tone* on the job, with a client or your boss, and you may see what I mean.

    A toddler cursing a two scared old ladies at the bench may not be of consequence, but a teenager doing the same will likely be called for exactly the same words.

    You gave the answer: word connotation is all about social interaction.

    Peace! :)

  3. I totally agree with the OP.
    hoverFrog said:

    Which has more power: “You’re being ridiculous” or “Your spouting shit”?

    Well, they’re not comparable sentences. One is more colourful not because of the word, “shit”, but the imagery of spouting it.
    Compare instead, “that’s garbage” and “that’s bullshit”.

    While I agree that constant swearing does reduce the impact of certain words, I don’t understand why that’s a bad thing. If you want to reserve something for theose special moments when the hammer hits the thumb, be my guest, but why should I care? Why do we need words to be afraid of, words that have a different scale of meaning in different company?

    I do appreciate that there are some enviromnents now where no sentence is complete without some sort of parent-child sex reference, and nobody takes it to mean that someone is actually Oedipal, it’s more of a dialect. And yes, it can sound very childish.

    The worst offence to my mind is when people coyly write, “f**k off” like adding in punctuation marks changes the meaning. Well, it does change the meaning: it makes you look like a timid little cock.

  4. I would have to agree with Elyse’s thinking on this one; raising a child to be aware of the words and their impact will ultimately lead to more responsible usage by the child. I think everyone can agree there is no way to keep someone from learning words like fuck or shit, so the responsible thing to do as a parent is to teach a child when and how to say them appropriately. The traditional way of viewing this issue is to metaphorically slap the child’s hand any time they use “blue” language, but all this leads to is the exotic nature of those words creating a much more higher draw for the child to use them when the parent is not present; a new method is necessary and I think Elyse has found a great approach.

  5. You know, this post reminds me of someone I work with. Now I work in shipping/warehouse setting, so naturally there is a good deal of sailor talk bandied about in the course of a shift. It’s peppered throughout the regular conversation without care, and given the physically laborious and often frustrating nature of the job, well then it used with great care and intent, quite loudly.

    Except for one guy. Only one person, male or female in the entirety that I’ve worked there refuses to curse, a 20-something Mormon guy. He doesn’t get offended, but there is something unbelievably adorable yet creepy about the one voice in a sea of “What the fuck?!” “Come on you fucking idiot!” “Son of Bitch?”; even in the most flustering and irritating situations that arise letting out a sincere and wrathful “Holy Helen!”, “Aw, shiz” “Freakin’ Heck” and I am deadly serious “Oh geez, oh man”.

    Obviously, the guy doesn’t mind when anyone else curses, except of course in the case of blasphemy. Which being a godless heathen myself, I goddamn things even in a good mood. But I try to cut it out for his sake, I mean he’s just so wholesomely Mormon, even when he is legitimately mad, it’s like watching an angry puppy bark.

    The other night, in a heated moment when things were just not going right, as the case often is, in a heated exchange, another co-worker accidentally coaxes him into letting out a “Goddamn it”. Let me tell you, the rest of that night it was like watching a kicked puppy.

    How this relates to the topic at hand, and I will stretch to make this non-sequitur fit. I have to admit that amongst my brothers, my friends and coworkers I let the “blue” language fly. But my interactions with my Mormon colleague remind me that the words do have a certain power, that I should respect more, because all it really takes is the right person and the word can cause some real hurt. Because while I can let the blasphemes fly and not even blink, for some it precipitates to a mini-crisis of faith and conscience.

    I think the fundamental point is lesson, that children, and even adults need to learn respect for other people, and a sense of propriety. That’s where the swearing becomes an issue, is when it is used disrespectfully.

    Either that, or Mormon cursing is fucking hilarious.

  6. I COMPLETELY agree, my mother felt the same way as you do, and yeah she used profanity around me when I was a kid. Not only that, but I never had any ridiculous TV or movie restrictions based on my age and by the time I was in kindergarten I could explain to you what a uterus was and how babies came from there.

    Now I’m 21, I’ve watched countless people I knew throughout my childhood go completely nuts with college freedom to the point of ruining their lives. Those who were sheltered the most usually hit the pavement the fastest and the hardest with all the sex and booze their parents won’t be able to see from a comfortable distance. Me on the other hand? I stay home and study with my boyfriend, I knit, and I spend time with my family because I WANT to, not because I’m forced to.

    I think that sheltering your children from the real world will only widen the gap between you in the end, I know that a lot of people out there wouldn’t agree with the way my mother raised me because they can’t imagine their precious 10 year old watching “About Last Night”, but the truth is your kids will do all of this whether you “let” them or not and you know it. So you might as well have an open relationship about it, the most important thing is to build a line of communication with your child, to make them feel like they can trust you not like you’re their warden.

  7. Thanks for the very funny post. I have a friend at work who is a dedicated Christian (even wears a little “fish” pin) and family man. He also curses like a sailor. WTF? But, if you think about it, the Bible really doesn’t address the fucking issue at all. There is no “Thou shalt not use “Fuck” in mixed company” or “And Christ saith unto the apostles, “Curse not at those who curse you, use not the F-word, replace ye foul language with goober-sounding epithets”. So why is the use of language a religious issue? Hmmm….

  8. I think you are both right *and* wrong. Obviously, “Oh, Fuck!” and “Oh, Fiddlesticks!” have the same basic meaning. But words do have social context.

    When you say “Oh, Fuck” around a bunch of longshoremen, you are not, in fact, saying the the same thing as if you said “Oh, Fuck” at a church social. In the latter case, you are also saying “I am trying to offend.”

    I’m not saying don’t offend. I’m saying that using a word that you know people are going to be offended by and then opining “It’s just a word!” is disingenuous. No subsequent whining about the social consequences deserves any sympathy whatsoever.

    On the other hand, it cuts both ways. Anyone who comes into an existing social order and then claims victimhood because that group uses words that offend his or her poor virgin ears doesn’t deserve any sympathy either.

    So, my personal sympathies ultimately lie with you, Elyse. You can use any word there is around me. But it would be ridiculous for either of us to expect the social structure of the world to align with our preferences. This is obviously, one of the things that kids need to learn about, but a child that is first learning to speak is not ready for this lesson.

    I do think that a lot of the talk on this thread seems to assume older kids, ones you can have an actual conversation with. With really little kids like yours, I think there is a case to be made for avoiding certain words so they are less likely to repeat them before they are old enough to learn about social context. Once kids are older, I do agree that the standard rule of parents swearing away from their kids and kids swearing away from their parents but neither swearing when they are in the same room is absurd.

    Of course, I do shake my head at the parents who go ballistic when their little ones repeat a profane word. The child then learns that there are magic words that create lots and lots of attention. Talk about fucking stupid…

  9. Ok. Not many posts bring out the curmudgeon in me, but I have to make an exception here.

    First, let me preface this by saying that I am not a fan of censorship and I am a curser.

    But I do believe in connotation and in respecting other people and their beliefs.

    First, I don’t agree with the statement that there is no different between the words “shit” and “crap”. Words have connotations, which is why I find the word “shit” so entirely appropriate to certain occasions. If connotation is meaningless, why say “odoriferous” instead of “stinky”, why say “rendezvous” instead of “date”, why say “fuck” instead of “make love”. They each are appropriate to certain occasions and moods.

    If all that mattered were words’ basic meaning, there would be no market for the thesaurus, and no opportunity for personal expression and nuance via writing (or speaking).

    To teach a child that connotation is meaningless in the face of words’ basic meaning is…well…not a reflection of reality.

    And while you may feel that other people shouldn’t react differently to “shit” vs. “crap”, you have to acknowledge that some people do. And to teach a child that it’s ok to say “shit” to old ladies, even in the context that you’ve defined as acceptable, when you both know it will probably offend them, is to send a much more powerful message to the child, and that is – when his opinion is different from someone else’s, the other person is just “silly” or “stupid” and they, and their beliefs, are unworthy of respect.

    I don’t curse in the company of my parents or one of my closest friends who has two young children. And while this may limit my expression from “shit” to “crap” when “shit” is truly appropriate, I’m sending a more important message, and that is – I respect you, and your beliefs, and I care about you.

    This reminds me of Randian objectivism, where everyone is convinced they’ve perceived the objective reality, and everyone else is wrong. I like to think that most skeptics are more open-minded and respectful of others than that.

  10. I believe everyone has made what I feel are the three salient points, so I will just summarize.

    1) You can use whatever language you want, but it’s unreasonable to think that people will not judge you for it. People judge, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

    2) If you swear constantly, there’s never room for escalation. If every other word out of your mouth is ‘fuck’, what do you say to let people know you’re really upset? (For the record, I rarely, *rarely* swear (though I’m frequently offensive) – when I say ‘fuck’, people clear the room.)

    3) Choice of words have a meaning unto themselves (go check your McLuhan). There’s world of difference between saying “this black man” and “this nigger dude” – heck, there’s worlds of difference between saying “you look a little heavy” and “you’re fat.” Some words carry more mean-ness, more offensiveness, and if you’re going to use them you need to be aware of that.

    /my two cents

  11. Let me be clear. I am not planning on just letting him pop off f-bombs all day long in school and at grandma’s house. He will still be expected to have manners. But using (or not using) profanity around him and forbidding him to use it? I can’t control whether he does or not.

    I like to think of myself as a fairly easy person to get along with. People find me likable. I talk like a truckdriver… but I also know when to reel it in. My parents taught me that such words are bad, but I use them… and you know, I figured out that they’re not so bad. That doesn’t mean I tell my mom about the “fuckhead” I had to deal with at the grocery store.

    He’s going to be able to figure out, no matter what I teach him, that there are consequences for the things he does and the things he says. But the general use of curse words is a non-issue for me. To teach him that they’re “wrong” is hypocritical.

  12. I agree that teaching kids that certain words are morally “wrong” doesn’t make much sense. It would make more sense to me to emphasize context in using the words rather than extending a blanket ban on the word “fuck”, for example. A kid stubbing their toe at home saying “holy fucking shit” is a whole other can of worms than if they stub their toe in front of their teacher. In that case, they’d better just bite their lip instead.

    I don’t think that’s censorship or pandering to the “virgin ears” of others, I think it’s just a lesson in social behaviour and responsibility. Want to avoid detention? Don’t swear in front of teacher. But practicing that restraint doesn’t make the word “wrong”, which is an important distinction.

    On a side note:
    I really loved the Bullshit! episode about swearing. Penn: “[shouting] I LOVE YOU, DOG!!!!!” vs. “[calmly] I’m going to run you over with my car, you stupid dog” (or something to that effect).

  13. “If you swear constantly, there’s never room for escalation. If every other word out of your mouth is ‘fuck’, what do you say to let people know you’re really upset?”

    I don’t find that to be the case. I swear a lot but true upsetness demonstrates the sheer creativity with which one can use swear words. You should hear my partner when he’s upset, he’s a wizard of swearing.

    And I don’t really like being told to respect people’s beliefs as most often I encounter it as, “Shut up and let us get our way.” I respect people, sure, but I’m not going to go out of my way to respect their beliefs if their beliefs are dumb.

  14. I agree with the OP. What is important in social interactions are the people, the messages and the meanings being conveyed, not the specific words used to convey those meanings.

    Usually the only time I will swear is when someone is being deliberately hurt by another person. What I use is very much dependant on who is around. If I was around religious people I would not blaspheme (usually, unless I was trying to offend them or for other reasons). There would have to be a particular reason for me to choose one swear or another. Actually physically hurting someone is worse than saying bad things about them, and saying bad things about them is worse than being silent.

    When my children were growing up, I didn’t care so much about non-God swearing. My side of the family does have some “born again” Christians in it, my parents were religious, not “born again”, but enough so that blasphemy would have been upsetting to them in ways that non-religious swearing would not be. I didn’t scold them for what they said, just reminded them that such words would hurt some people’s feelings. Such words didn’t bother me, I am completely agnostic in the teacup sense. Not an atheist, but only because proving that something undefined does not exist is not possible.

  15. “I don’t think that’s censorship or pandering to the ‘virgin ears’ of others, I think it’s just a lesson in social behaviour and responsibility. Want to avoid detention? Don’t swear in front of teacher. But practicing that restraint doesn’t make the word ‘wrong’, which is an important distinction.”

    As you say, it is all about context. The teacher should be able to set the tone in his or her classroom. But if that same teacher goes into a biker bar and gets upset at the profanity, then the teacher is the asshole.

  16. Interesting conversation, and one I find myself having again and again with people. I find the idea of a word being somehow wrong in and of itself morally repugnant. A word is a word. The word iself carries no rightness or wrongness. Period. Only the usage. The intent. Sure, if you know a person dislikes the a certain for some reason, and you have a personal reason to care about their opinion, by all means, rein that shit in… If I use a word you don’t like, you have every right to be upset… but I have every right to not give a flying Philadephia fuck what your goddamned opinion is. When someone else tries to tell me a WORD is somehow wrong, I get angry. If don’t like my idea, feel free to not like it.If you don’t like my attitude, let me know. If you hate that I take that tone with someone or that I’m belittle someone or whatever, those are all valid reasons to take exception to what I said… but if you somehow think calling someone a cunt is worse than calling her a bitch, you’re just fucking wrong.

    I’ve never yet come across a word I refuse to use, nor do I expect to. Are there people I won’t say “Go fuck yourself” to? Of course, but those arethe same people I wouldn’t say a great many other things to as well. Are there people I would’t say “Goddamnit!” around if I tripped and twisted my ankle or somesuxh? No. Not one. If they’re offended by that, then i’ll explain to them, in great detail if need be, why they’re fucking stupid to think I shouldn’t say it.

    That said, I don’t tend to use “strong language” terribly often, but I will throw down some very creative and anatomically improbable descriptions when the moment presents itself, and I’ll never feel for doing so. When an occurance calls for “Holy goat-fucking Mohommed licking elephant balls on a unicycle!” I’ll shout it out, and couldn’t give a shit less if there’s old ladies present or not.

  17. My mother sat down with me in my grade school years and explained that Some Children would probably swear, but that at our house we didn’t. She explained that we didn’t say “gosh” or “golly” because they were short for “God”, we didn’t say “jeez” because it was short for “Jesus”, and we didn’t say “darn” or “dang” because they were short for “damn.” We could say “phooey”, and we tacitly ignored the fact that “oh shoot” was short for “oh shit.”

    Fast forward twenty years. By this time, my younger sister and my mother are both breast cancer survivors, both having survived mastectomies and chemo. Both swear a blue streak — they’re careful not to do it around people who would be offended, and my mom draws the line at the f-bomb, but that’s about the only restriction. Independently of each other, they realized that some things in life are just too bad to be summed up with the word “phooey.”

    I’d like to be able to teach my daughter that distinction at some point.

    My son, on the other hand, is mildly autistic, and he tends to repeat things if he likes the sound of them. So I will probably continue to curtail my language around him unless I want to go through the grocery store with my face flaming red while his sweet little voice carries through the store: “Learn to drive, you fucking idiot! Learn to drive, you fucking idiot! Learn to drive, you fucking idiot!”

  18. It seems everyone else has already covered any point I was planning on making. (For the record I agree with you Elyse, the idea that a word in and of itself is immoral is absurd.) So I’ll just recommend interested parties check out this video of Stephen Pinker talking about the linguistic origins of swearing and what it says about human nature.

  19. The idea of a word being “immoral” is absurd. Just as absurd as the idea that words don’t matter.

    A word isn’t just a series of letters, it’s a mode of self expression. It’s a way for you to communicate what’s going on inside you, who you are, and what you think of someone or something. And that’s important.

    The words you choose are one of the most important ways you can reveal yourself to others.

    This blog, for example, is nothing but words. We all come here to read words that interest us, excite us, and spark new thoughts within us that we articulate using…words.

    The words you choose reveal a lot about you – what you think, what you feel, who you are, what you think of others.

    A word in and of itself is not immoral, but the usage of it in a way that shows a lack of respect for others is.

    You’re kidding yourself if you think words aren’t important.

    As for not showing respect to beliefs that you think are dumb, I don’t even know what to say about that. That’s the definition of intolerance. And while I think it’s great to disagree with someone (that’s a lot of what we do here), I think it’s arrogant to assume you don’t have to show them respect because you are right and their position is dumb.

  20. As for not showing respect to beliefs that you think are dumb, I don’t even know what to say about that. That’s the definition of intolerance.

    Stacey, I disagree with that statement completely.

    Intolerance is a lot different than disrespecting ideas, or even than refusing to respect people. Intolerance is when you think that people do not deserve to live or to have freedom or other rights because of [fill in the blank].

    I respect my mother but I think she believes some really stupid bullshit, like that Jesus will return when the last tree is cut down on the earth. WTF? Why do I have to respect a crock of shit like that? My mother is a good, caring, and very nice person. She has a lot of good traits that I respect her for, but I do not and will not respect the stupid things that she believes in.

    But some people are so far gone, they don’t even deserve any respect, like Fred Phelps, for example. I don’t respect him. He’s, frankly, not respectable. But I certainly think he has a right to live and to be free to voice his stupid opinions and to have all of the other rights that every human being should enjoy.

    Respect has to be earned, and it has nothing to do with tolerance.

  21. I don’t have time to get into a big debate today, but really quick:

    Here’s the definition of intolerance. Literally.

    “Lack of toleration; unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect contrary opinions or beliefs, persons of different races or backgrounds, etc.”

  22. writerdd // Mar 22, 2008 at 12:22 pm said:
    “Anyone else remember the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?”

    I thought this one was more accurate, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your heart.”
    I think there’s a time and place for swearing. I liken it to smoking – if you want to smoke in your own home, have at it. If you’re in a smoking area at a bar or restaurant, then it’s up to me to stay out if I don’t like it.
    But just as you don’t have a right to submit me to your smoking in a public area, I shouldn’t have to hear “eff this” and “eff that” walking through the mall with my family.
    It’s already crept further and further into movies and television, and will never go backward – it will only get more and more prevalent. Will we eventually get to the point where “polite society” is an antiquated term?
    When I was a teenager, the only swearing I did was with my buddies – never in front of girls, and never (if I valued my life) in front of my parents.
    Nowadays, it amazes me the way boys and girls speak to each other. I never considered myself a prude, but I’m starting to feel like one.

  23. When I was a teenager, the only swearing I did was with my buddies – never in front of girls

    More offensive than any word you can use is the idea that somehow I’m too delicate to handle such strong and powerful language so it must not be used in my presence.

    If you can say it to a man, you can say it to me. Anything less is disrespectful.

  24. “And while I think it’s great to disagree with someone (that’s a lot of what we do here), I think it’s arrogant to assume you don’t have to show them respect because you are right and their position is dumb.”

    Oh, I never said I was right. And I do show *people* respect, at least until they are rude to me.

    I just don’t find it weird to be able to love and respect people who hold opinions I don’t respect. I know my loved ones don’t agree with or respect all of my decisions and opinions, but they still love and respect me as a whole person. I feel the same way about them.

    Or is this a semantics misunderstanding? I have a feeling there may be more agreement here than I’m realizing.

    For all of my misanthrophy and arrogance, I really do hate rudeness. As can be seen by this discussion though, everyone has a different definition of rudeness.

  25. I fail to see how the use or non-use of a word can be intrinsically polite or rude. It makes no sense to me. Banning the use of a word from TV or movies is stupidity of the highest order. Yes, the words I use say a lot about who I am and what’s going on inside of me, but if you don’tknow me, you aren’t equipped to decode it. If you think otherwise, that’s the very definition of arrogance, and also very, VERY wrong. If say fuck or cunt in public, it’s not because I don’t care about you as a person, or even that I don’t care about your feelings about those words. It’s because I think the idea that you have feelings about the words is intrinsically morally reprehensible, and it’s only by pushing against and breaking societal norms that we can see which ones matter, and which do not. The use of “profanity” will not, and cannot have any real negative effect on humanity or society, so the rules against it are without merit. Much like rules about men having long hair, women wearing pants, or breast fedding – doing any of these in public will cause no problems except that perhaps some people who take themselves too seriously and think they have a right to control others may get upset. It’s not like smoking, which might very well hurt your body. “Bad words” can only hurt you if you choose to allow them to.

  26. Much like rules about men having long hair, women wearing pants, or breast fedding

    FYI, on a side note I do plan on discussing the breastfeeding topic at some point.

  27. But just as you don’t have a right to submit me to your smoking in a public area, I shouldn’t have to hear “eff this” and “eff that” walking through the mall with my family.

    Those are completely incomparable. When smoke is in the air surrounding you, you literally have no choice but to be affected by it. Whatever damage it does is unavoidable. With swearing, however, the offense you take is completely by choice. If you hear a curse word, you can either make a big deal out of it, or not. You do not have that choice with airborne toxic chemicals.

  28. I fail to see how the use or non-use of a word can be intrinsically polite or rude

    Take cursing out of the equation and it’s easier to see. Curse words aren’t the only assembly of letters that can be perceived as impolite.

    For example, at my resort, we are required to use “polite” verbiage in the spa, asking that our clients remove all of their clothing prior to a massage. In the instructions, we use the phrase “remove your undergarments”. Somehow, “remove your undergarments” is perceived as more polite, less intrusive, and more respectful to our clientele than “take off your underwear”, “strip off your bra and panties”, or “get naked”.

    As I said above, if all that mattered were a word’s base meaning, language would have no nuance, and we would have almost no means of personal expression. There would just be one word for every thing and we would all use that word. In fact, the fact that curse words do have a harsher connotation is exactly what makes them so damn effective sometimes.

    And there are a limitless combination of letters and words that can be used to convey varying shades of meaning and respect or disrespect to others.

    Consider this; you have an opinion, someone else has an opinion, you disagree. You both think you’re right and that the other one is dumb and unworthy of respect. You’re going to annoy the hell out of each other. It’s the danger of an elitist mentality.

    I hope that is not where we’re going.

  29. Rystefn, I totally agree that banning/bleeping words on TV is stupid. It kind of makes me wonder what the point of rating systems are if we’re just going to ban things anyway. I love that movies on TV will blank out the words “fuck” etc. even though the context of use clearly identifies the blanked word. Honestly, what is the point? It’s hilarious that the powers that be think this is effective.

  30. Great post, Elyse. I always love a good discussion about language.

    One point about nuance: I think there are too many peripheral elements involved in the use of language to say that word choice alone contributes nuance. In my view, inflection, context, and probably even social setting contribute more to the nuance and power of words than the precise word choice.

    And that’s not meant to diminish the importance of word choice. I still think the words we use are important, but word choice does not trump the other elements of expression by default.

    So I think having a child learn and use words considered profane is absolutely acceptable, as long as they understand the other elements as well.

    But since I don’t have children, and don’t really know how those squirmy little things work, do parents allow their kids to learn about context? Do they sit on the sideline and watch as their offspring experiment with inflection? Do mommy and daddy just look on passively as junior figures out that the impact of his words is different for different listeners? Or do parents take an active role in teaching those elements of language?

    Or is it a little bit of both worlds?

  31. This is a really interesting discussion, and I thank you Elyse for sparking it off.

    Speaking pragmatically, I think you are in the right ballpark Elyse. Specifically about teaching your child not to be an asshole. If that lesson comes through, the swearing or not will sort itself out.

  32. With swearing, however, the offense you take is completely by choice.

    I respectfully disagree with that.

    That’s a load of bullshit.

    See where I’m headed with this? You may not be offended by the word “bullshit” itself, but profanity often indicates a higher level of emotional intensity and personal involvement, so its very presence in a sentence makes the statement more likely to offend. “Please go away” and “Fuck off” technically mean the same thing, but “Fuck off” is more offensive. To some people, it’s just because of the word “fuck” itself. But even to people who are fine with the word, it is more dismissive and less polite than the first option, and that has nothing to do with one’s comfort level with profanity.

    Also, I would suggest that “completely by choice” is stretching it. I spent many years deliberately training my tastes to include previously detested menu items such as green beans, onions, broccoli, asparagus, and green peppers, since I knew it would be much easier to eat in public if I didn’t have to dissect everything first. But my natural tastes did NOT include those from the beginning.

    I think profanity is similar, although I will grant that people’s distaste for it is more a result of nurture than nature. Maybe in time, with careful retraining of one’s ear (and a good reason for doing so), someone who was bothered by profanity could become accustomed to it. But for most people, why should they bother? Just because something is ubiquitous doesn’t make it a useful or appealing thing for everyone.

    I actually think your analogy of smoking and profanity is a good one. Smokers aren’t usually bothered by the smell of smoke, and some of them are aggressive about their right to smoke, regardless of anyone else’s automatic physical response to their habit. The more polite smokers I know are aware of many non-smokers’ distaste for the smell, and are inclined to exhale in the opposite direction when smoking and talking with a non-smoker, and not light up at all if they know the non-smoker is particularly sensitive to the fumes. An accomplished cusser, ideally, will have the same sensitivity — I attempt to do this, and the result is that few people know that I’m even capable of it, and that doesn’t bother me in the least.

    It’s not about toughening everybody else up, it’s about common courtesy.

  33. You can take profanity or swearing out of the equation all you like, it makes no difference in my world. A WORD in and of itself means absolutely nothing, and so cannot be intrinsically polite or impolite. I can’t wrap my brain around the idea that so many people are capable of thinking this way. How in the universe do you reconcile that there is ANY difference, denotive or connotive, between “underwear” and “undergarment”? That doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. Might as well go on about the difference between “pancake” and “flapjack”. The words are completely interchangeable with no loss or alteration of meaning. Which one is impolite?

  34. A WORD in and of itself means absolutely nothing, and so cannot be intrinsically polite or impolite.

    Sure it does! Any word that isn’t just a random collection of letters means something. That’s how we communicate. I think you’re reducing the argument down to something other than what we were talking about, to say that a word can’t mean anything in and of itself. Words DO mean something or we wouldn’t be able to communicate, and they also have connotations that we use all the time, whether consciously or not.

    It depends entirely on your personal context, but enough people have similar contexts for these words that some generalizations are safe. I have no issues with the word “fuck”, but I’m still enough connected to my Christian roots that “Jesus H. Christ” makes my skin crawl a bit. I think this would be true of many Christians. People who come from racially tense areas or who have personal experience with racism are often going to react more strongly to racially based epithets. Gays and lesbians are going to respond differently to foul language that plays off of their sexuality. Plenty of people have linguistic hot buttons, and this doesn’t have to be a flaw, it’s just part of many people’s human experience.

    You might not see any difference between “undergarment” and “underwear”, but if you’re talking to a woman who does see a difference and you’re expecting her to be comfortable without said articles of clothing, it comes back to courtesy — use the one she’s comfortable with if you want to have the desired effect. It’s not a moral issue, just a practical one.

    If you truly believe that words mean nothing and cannot be intrinsically polite or impolite, you should expect the same success rate with the pickup line “Hey, you’re hot, wanna fuck?” as with something a tad more sophisticated and wordy. And if you actually HAVE the same success rate with that pickup line and a more articulate one, you must have something else going for you, because I think most women would argue that in general, words DO in fact make a difference when you’re trying to get into our pants. ;)

  35. “Than a more articulate one” is what I meant at the very end there, not “and a more articulate one.” Thought I proofed it pretty well, but I missed that one.

  36. Elyse // Mar 22, 2008 at 5:39 pm said:
    Ssteppe: When I was a teenager, the only swearing I did was with my buddies – never in front of girls

    “More offensive than any word you can use is the idea that somehow I’m too delicate to handle such strong and powerful language so it must not be used in my presence.
    If you can say it to a man, you can say it to me. Anything less is disrespectful.”

    I was referring to girls, not women. I’m in a profession where men and women have equal footing, and I’m not a “throw-back”. I have a few close women friends who I know I can swear around and who enjoy a filthy joke. If I knew you well, you’d fit in that category.
    But I also have women (and men) friends who would be extremely offended if I spoke like that around them, and I know not to share dirty jokes with them.
    So if I’m around people I don’t know, I curtail my swearing, (which means you’ll never hear me swear in public.)
    As I originally said, “There’s a time and a place.”

  37. I’d like to point out something in another direction. Christians don’t refrain from saying “God Bless You” (and not just when someone sneezes) or “I’ll Pray for You” or “Praise God” or to loudly vocalize other sentiments that I find patently offensive when they are in public.

    So I refuse to refrain from saying fuck or shit when I am in public. Why should one group of people have to change their way of speaking to appease another, more squeamish, group? Not everyone is offended by the same things and if we tried to never offend anyone, we’d all stay in hour houses and put tape over our mouths.

    There is no such thing as the right to never be offended, anyway.

    So fuck anyone who doesn’t like my vocabulary. I don’t give a shit. And, to be frank, this type of discussion makes me want to use more profanity more loudly in more places where it is considered inappropriate.

    99.99% of Americans curse. If you don’t like it, then you can stay in your house an never come out, throw your TV in the garbage, don’t read books, and put cotton in your ears so you don’t hear the “dirty” words that can despoil your fragile purity.

    Fuck the 1950s and the phony Victorian-style morality that was enshrined in that decade. They’re both dead and gone and I say good riddance.

  38. Ugh. I am too time-crunched this a.m. to read through all the responses, but here’s mine (as the parent of a child who is now old enough to say *everything* I say). I think the problem is that your child will all children have the verbal skills to use those words before they have the reasoning ability to know when to use them. So you may find a small child who has been exposed to naughty words shouting “Jesus Christ is a fucker” for no reason in the middle of the grocery store. And that is, in my humble opinion, a problem. I think discretion is the better part of valour, and it behooves us to try and limit kids exposure to ugly words and concepts until they have the sense to know what they mean, why they hurt people, and when it’s marginally ok to use them. Does that make sense? I do think manners count, and we do have to live with other people, so even if we think other people are prudes, there’s no sense in offending the fuck out of them (or having our kids do it for us) just to make ourselves feel better.

  39. And I meant to have a strikethrough on the words “your child will” in the second sentence above and it didn’t work so now it just looks like I’m a complete grammatical idiot. More caffeine, please.

  40. Words have nomeaning beyond that which we give them. Therefore – NO intrinsic meaning. Therefore, they are incapable of being polite or rude in and of themselves. Period. The meaning we give them ALSO rarely has the capacity to be polite or impolite. Only the INTENT can be polite or rude. If you find one word is more comfortable to one person than another, I won’t belittle you for choosing to use the comfortable when it suits your purpose. I WILL however belittle you for assuming that which one the comforting one is anything like universal. It’s not the WORD, but the person. If you stop to consider – it’s NEVER the word. Ever. No word, in and of itself, is capable of offense. None. Only the person hearing it.

    “Hey, you’re hot, wanna fuck?” Only works if the person in question wants that. If that’s what she wants, then it works. Generally, though, that’s not what she wants (or if she does, she wants something else as well), so it’s pretty hit or miss. Generally, that’s not what I want, either. I think it’s interesting how often I’m told that I express myself well, and how rarely people agree with my thoughts and opinions on self-expression. I wonder if the two are connected somehow… As I said before, there are a great many reasons to choose one word over another, and yes, putting someone else at ease or actively avoicing upsetting them are perfectly valid reasons, but in both of these examples, you’re choosing the word around a person, not because of any value intrinsic to the word itself. But, like a man cutting his hair short to look more buisnesslike or a woman wearing a dress because pants would be frowned upon by her boyfriend’s family – I find the idea morally reprehensible. I am honestly offended by the entire concept.

    We all make choices in this world, and we have to live with the consequences. Yes, my beliefs have brought me troubles. I’ve lost friends because of my atheism. I’ve lost jobs because I refuse to cut my hair short. Yes, I’ve had a few problems because of my use of language. In all cases, I explain to people why I do what I do, and I stand by it. I am prepared to live with the consequences. I am NOT prepared to stand aside and let others dictate to me that I must follow along with antiquated and foolish ideas which I find morally wrong. My hair is down to my waist now, I swear when I feel like it, and I wear a skirt if the mood strikes me. Anyone who has a problem with it can stick their head up an elephant’s ass and chew their way out.

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