by Julia Buckley
My ten-year-old son has always been stern about maintaining clean language; if his father or I (generally not profane, but both subject to temper) ever let fly with a "damn it" or a "what the hell is that?" he would instruct us to apologize, which we did. We are ever humbled by the vigilence of our children. :)
Lately, though, my son has been sidling up to me and asking for "permission" to say certain words. First it was "hell." He wanted to say it because certain jokes he saw on television used it in punch lines (this includes children's cartoons) and he wanted to be able to repeat them. Later it was the word "damn," and yesterday he asked if it would be okay with me if he sometimes said the word "bastard."
I find all of this very polite and respectful, and it makes sense, because words are about power. Right now my son thinks I have the "power" to restrict his language, which I suppose I do. Later he will seize that power and say whatever he wishes simply to assert his rights. And sometimes, as a child, as a teen, as an adult, he will wield words both to help and to hurt other people.
Swearing is not something that I generally approve of; I don't like stumbling across a tv show or movie with my children that is filled with gratuitous swearing. We turn it off, or I find myself reddening and apologizing to my boys. On the other hand, I know that they'll hear swearing in the world, occasionally from me, so I have to avoid hypocrisy, especially because, whether I like it or not, swearing is a reality that has always been there. According to a 2005 article in the Herald Tribune, swearing has existed since man existed, and when and why we swear is stuff made for scientists.
Ben Jonson and Shakespeare are said, in this article, to be notorious swearers of their age, and their plays are peppered with daring and inappropriate language. "Every language, dialect, or patois ever studied," asserts author Natalie Angier, " . . . turns out to have its share of forbidden speech."
As interesting as why we swear is when we swear. My most likely occasions are true of most of mankind: when I am angry, and when I am under stress. My husband will assure you that I can swear like the most profane sailor when I am arguing heatedly with him, and even if my children are in the car I have been guilty of yelling the occasional "ass-face!" at someone who cuts me off. (Or something similar).
It's ironic to me that the one key swear word I've never said in front of my children (and most likely never will), is the one that our society has given the most power: the dreaded f-word.
I took a linguistics class in college that explored this word in detail (it was a fun class). It suggested that one of the things that gives words like this their primal power is that they sound violent. They are short, assertive, with strong consonant sounds. Therefore, these words are most effective as curses because they sound almost like a violent action--one that we also attribute to a sexual action.
Angier writes that scientists are seeking a link between swearing and the more primal parts of our brains. In an odd way, swearing links humanity throughout history.
But back to my son's questions: when asked if he could say those words, I said I had no problem if he said them at home, in the context of a joke, but that he couldn't say them at school or to his friends. I'm still asserting power over his language, but I'm not fooling myself into thinking that he won't soon seize the power of language for himself.
Well, I've confessed to being a stress-swearer. Do you swear? When and why?
(My photo, which represents the ancient world, was taken by my husband in an Argentinian grape vineyard).