The truth about profanity

I got stung by a yellow-jacket about an hour ago. It hurt. I cursed. I used a few of those words you want people to believe you only keep for really awful special occasions. I used them loudly. I used them repeatedly.

This is not a new thing for my neighbors to hear. I curse when I build things. I curse when I get impatient. I curse when I lose things.

I don’t curse a lot but when I curse, I curse with gusto.

I was raised to believe in the forbidden power of Bad Words. I grew up carrying around the vague notion that Bad Words had magic powers and could send you directly to heck. I had a terrible time keeping up with which words were Bad. All the usual culprits were on the list (for the complete list see George Carlin). Words like crap, dang and hell occupied an undefined status. They could get me in trouble but definitely weren’t as bad as the baddest Bad Words. I once got in trouble with my Sunday School teacher for saying “holy cow”. She asked if I had ever actually seen a cow that was holy. At the time, I wasn’t versed enough in world religions to offer the Hindu perspective.

As a lover of words, the idea that some words are forbidden for no specific reason was frustrating. I was baffled by the general confusion surrounding which specific words I was being protected from.

Shit and crap is bad. Doo-doo, poop and feces are fine. I don’t know about you, but, to me, the later are more embarrassing than the former.

I’m thinking about this because I have a five year old daughter who listens to everything I say and likes to try out novel expressions in various situations. My wife and I are intentionally raising a child who loves language. We rarely use the same adjective twice. We play rhyming games. Emersey invents elaborate song lyrics with complex internal rhyme schemes. She starts kindergarten in August and already routinely uses words like “extraordinary”, “magnificent” and “inconvenient”. We talk about feelings a lot. She knows the difference between sad, irritated, agitated and gloomy.

All of this is to say I hate the idea of forbidden Bad Words. I can’t bring myself to chastise her for an occasional dammit or hell in the appropriate context. This is going to be a major problem for me because we are not just raising a kid to value the wonder of language. We are raising a kid who has to function well in polite society. I don’t want to raise a vulgar potty mouth. Not because I believe Those Words are bad but because I believe that the indiscrete overuse of Those Words reflects poor command of language and shows an inability to reach for richer, more effective words when the situation requires.

In short, I hope to raise a daughter who understands that there are no Bad Words but there are certainly Bad Uses. A word in itself cannot be bad, but it can be unwisely used and carry unintended side effects along with it. The purpose of words is to be understood. People judge us by the words we use. If they are well-impressed with our verbal toolkit, they are more willing to believe we are intelligent and treat us accordingly. If they find our toolkit lacking, they expect the opposite.

I’m not yet sure how I will handle this explanation when a kindergarten teacher wants to have a conversation about my daughter’s occasional use of the word “damn”. Did she use it appropriately? Did the word suite the context in which it was used? Would another word have more effectively conveyed her intended message? These are questions I suspect most kindergarten teachers will not enjoy. After a year of this, I may find myself resorting to the Bad Words list out of a sense of convenience more than anything else.

Until then, I feel completely justified polluting the neighborhood a bit with a few expletives when stung by a yellow-jacket, building a swing set or looking for my car keys. But I really must remember to be more creative and precise in my cursing. Good parenting is modeling desired behaviors. I want my daughter to invent new swear words that dig at the meat of the moment and get underneath the skin of the situation in a way that the typical everyday Bad Words just can’t.