Tag Archives: ESOL

“Mum, why were swear words invented?”

My eight year old daughter is, in my opinion, a bit of a prude. Not just a bit, actually, she would give Mary Whitehouse a run for her money in her constant outrage over use of what she deems “bad language.” Cut your finger while drying a knife and complain that you have got the tea towel all bloody and you will hear sharp intakes of breath followed by a hand covering the mouth of my little darling in horror at your use of “the B word.” A female dog can only be referred to as just that. You can talk about the possibility of the existence of heaven, but not the other place. Even describing something as “crap” meets with strong disapproval. She can only refer to her vagina in hushed tones and, while proud that she is still using the word at all and not some weird made up thing, it saddens me greatly that she attaches such embarrassment to her body parts. Ironically’ the other day she got upset by me talking about “boobs” instead of “breasts.”

How did this happen? Before I had kids, I swore fairly frequently. I enjoyed swearing. I tried not to swear in front of my parents – my mum has often told me that she never swore in front of her mother (who died 33 years ago) and so I tried to emulate that out of respect for her wishes. She has since sworn many times in front of me and I in front of her. We have even sworn at each other. I remember my dad taking me to a football match in my early teens and being shocked by his use of swear words. He swears, I swear. He did pick me up on my “taking the lord’s name in vain” – he is a Mormon – and so, again, out of respect I don’t do so in front of him or anyone I know to have similar convictions. I don’t think I have ever sworn in front of my husbands’s parents.

I have, since having kids, generally abstained from using swear words. However, on the occasional night out with friends, out of earshot of my kids, I have, again, enjoyed swearing. Unlike before, when I am in that situation, I relish each swear word I hear and every one that passes my lips. My son is now ten and my daughter eight and I had started to feel that I need not be so cautious in my use of language. They hear other kids swearing. They hear other adults swearing – especially those many adults that don’t have kids (which includes three of their uncles and two of their aunts – though i know they have also heard the aunts and uncles that do have kids swearing – I have a big family.) As a result of this relaxed attitude, I have thrown in the odd swear word – not in speaking to them, but in conversation with my husband or when I stub my toe, for example. The result has been total and utter outrage on the part of my prudish eight-year-old daughter and, I suspect, a decrease in the respect given to me by my son.

My daughter posed the question,”why were swear words invented?” Judging by her tone, she could equally have been asking, “why was slavery invented?” Or “why were weapons of mass destruction invented?” I was so thrown by the despair in her voice, I couldn’t answer at the time. I still haven’t answered her because I don’t know how to. I feel I have a good grasp on why swear words were “invented” and how they are used, but how do you communicate that to a prudish eight year old? I know that it is socially, let’s say, “frowned upon” for an eight year old girl to use swear words, at least within earshot of adults. At the same time, she will hear other people swearing and I don’t want her to immediately judge them negatively as a result. I think only ignorant people say that only ignorant people swear. She may or may not want to swear. If she, as others, choose not to, she, like them, will only end up using substitutes such as “sugar,” “blooming heck,” and so on. She does so already. When she hears swearing it offends and frightens her because her associations with swear words has always been negative. We tell her she shouldn’t swear and we don’t swear in front of her.

Swearing is often used in anger and so I can understand the negative associations. But swearing is also used to emphasise any strong emotion. Swear words can be used to degrade but they can also be used to upgrade. They can be used both as an insult and as a compliment. Like all use of language, swear words are a matter of discretion, appropriacy and choice.

Of course, like anyone learning a new language, my kids often ask “what does x x x x mean?” This is always a difficult question as the literal meaning bears little relation to how it is used, but it may go some way to explaining why we shelter anyone who is learning English, from such words. “You lucky bastard,” for example. Define this in literal terms and it makes little sense. Say something was “fucking amazing,” and what would you say when asked what “fucking” means? In the phrase “acting like a prick,” how do you define the word “prick?” If we offer our children the literal meaning, it does not match how the words are used. it would be equally unhelpful if we offered speakers of other languages a direct translation of these words. At the same time, is it enough to say that “fucking” is the equivalent of “really” or that “prick” means the same as “fool?”

So how the fuck should we deal with swear words??!!

As teachers of English to speakers of other languages, how do we deal with swearing? More on this in my next ******* blog!