I ended up having an interesting discussion with a teacher at my kids’ school the other day I thought I’d share with you.
First, I want to ask a question that I’d like you to answer honestly. Since you will be answering it to yourself, to prevaricate would be only to lie to yourself ;). Have you ever used a swear word? Doesn’t matter how minor or major, have you ever used any one?
How did it feel? Did it help relieve some of your tension or stress, did it let you get the emotions out of the way and clear your mind for managing whatever happened next? Did it serve any purpose at all?
Okay, maybe more than one question.
Basically, languages are living entities that adapt and grow to reflect people’s needs. When the first computer was invented, someone had to name it. Same with the first knife or the first time a person saw a horse. While some words have outlasted their purpose except within reenactment societies, every word in common, everyday usage has a purpose. Aquarius was delegated to a zodiac sign probably once the need for a water bearer vanished with the introduction of plumbing. So why have swear words persisted? Why is it that swear words exist in every human language I’ve ever heard of, often with commonalities such as the potty words? If my assumptions about language growth and word persistence are valid, then there’s a reason, a true purpose, for swear words.
Now back to my conversation with the teacher.
The topic began with the overreaction to the use of certain terms by both teachers and students and the failure to recognize cultural influences putting these words into people’s common vocabulary. Imagine someone told you not to use the word sleep. Now imagine having to remember to check every sentence before it comes out of your mouth to ensure you haven’t used the word sleep. Further imagine suffering disciplinary action of various levels if you should slip up because it came up within context and you didn’t think fast enough to recognize what you were about to say. A profuse apology and immediate retraction of your statement is considered irrelevant in the face of your failure to avoid mentioning *that word*.
Now, I am not in any way advocating the random use of swear words within the school system. Nor am I suggesting slip-ups should be allowed to pass unnoticed. However, I think things have gone a little too far. Swear words are a way to express emotions and sometimes even an alternative to violent action.
My husband is a tense, aggressive driver (he’s going to love that description :)) to the point that he got annoyed when people cut me off (who I didn’t notice) when we were caravanning. To counter road rage, he swears at other drivers, under his breath now with the introduction of little ears and more recently a chorus of “Daddy, watch your language.” While I would not advocate this method, for my husband, it lowers his stress and makes him a safer driver. How does this work? Well, he has expressed his emotions.
Emotions are dangerous things when bottled up and have been known to burst out all out of proportion if not given voice or at least appropriate consideration. The use of swear words is one, non-violent method of expressing and validating the emotion so its urgency passes.
Let’s go back to the school system for a moment. Whether you have kids, are currently in school or have a pretty good memory of your own experiences, I think most of us understand school is a stressful environment where social and academic pressures clash together with students crushed in between. Hmm, perhaps comparable to a bumper-to-bumper commute with a critical meeting or appointment at the other end.
So, we hope the students will relieve their stress through positive physical activity during recess time (which, by the way, gets shorter as school becomes more intense until you’re left with only a little time after lunch and then only if you gobble your food). And what about the students for whom recess is the most stressful part of all where they must endure the active ridicule of the other students and exclusion from all group activities?
Now counter that with the proscription of emotional interjections (which is basically what swear words are). I’d think the stress level would intensify without an outlet. And before you say, “Well, only ‘real’ swear words are proscribed,” let me point out my son was talked to for using “pissed off” as in “This really pisses me off.” A swear word? Maybe so since it falls into the potty language category but it is also an adamant expression of emotion, a legitimate phrasal verb according to the American Heritage Dictionary (http://www.bartleby.com/61/4/P0330400.html).
Say, “This really upsets me.”
Say, “This really pisses me off.”
Do they feel the same to you? Do they serve the same purpose? Maybe so, but then I’d ask, what’s next to join the list? Will students be limited to only politically correct forms of expression and all come across as if in a new age love fest? And if they’re not allowed to express these more complex and pressing emotions in a way that allows them to manage them, will we see other consequences.
I have an 11-year-old stress case. Well, honestly, he comes by it naturally since I was one at the same age, but still, it seems to me my children need all the tools in their language arsenal to handle the stressors put on them at every age. Are we helping or harming by trying to box them in to proper behavior all the time? Shouldn’t there be a time and place for expressing themselves even if it involves swear words? When my guys get rowdy, I tell them that’s outdoor behavior. When they use bad words, I tell them to watch their language. I must be ever diligent against the explosive expression of emotion because if they slip up at school too many times, there are consequences. I wonder what the consequences of the constant repression of emotions might be and when we’ll see them…or have we already?