Bad Language

I gave an assignment in class one day to finish a story we’d been reading.  I had taken off the ending, and told the students they had to be the authors.

Hands went up.  “Can we use bad language?”  Students all looked to me, hopeful.

This topic  was not part of my intended lesson, but the question provided me with a teachable moment, and I was not going to let it slip by me.

“Ah,” I said, “let’s talk about bad language.“  They settled in, figuring I was going to give a lecture about how terrible it was to use bad language, or else telling them which bad language they were allowed to use.

“Okay,” I continued, “when we talk about bad language, first of all we have to understand what it actually means, and why you should, or should not, use it.  That will help you decide whether it’s useful.”

“You know,” I explained, “in many western cultures, we use two kinds of words that we consider ‘bad.”  We use sex words and bathroom words.”

A hand went up.  “What d’you mean?”

“Well, we have the ‘s-word’ and the ‘f-word’ and a few others.  When you were young, you might have called someone who annoyed you, or made you angry, a ‘doody head.’  Now that you’re grown up, you’d call him an ‘s-head.’  And what, really, does that mean?  ‘S’ is your poop.  So if you’re upset or angry, you describe his head as looking like poop.  I’m not sure if this makes a lot of sense, but we do it.”

They were giggling – and nodding their heads and…thinking.

“So, now let’s take the whole idea of being ‘po’d’.  I mean, really, guys, what does that have to do with being angry?  You were so upset that you peed on yourself?  Or off yourself?  What?”

Now they were really laughing.  But they were also getting some idea of what I was getting at.

“Okay, so that’s two bathroom words.  Let’s look at sex words.  The big sex word – the ‘F’ word.”  This was really interesting, because it was very obvious that some of them really did not know the relationship of “the F-word” to sex.  Not joking here – several were puzzled, and they were not only the “nerdy” types, either.

I explained to them where the ‘F’ work came from – which is probably apocryphal, as there are similar, possibly more accurate derivations, but is still a good way to introduce the topic.  I told them what I had heard, which is that in medieval times, when people married, they had to get the consent of the king to have sex.  Another word for “having sex” is fornication.  So when people broke the law, and had sex with someone other than a spouse, they were put out in public, and tied (later in Puritan times in America, they were put into stocks) and their transgression was printed on their foreheads.  “Thief” is pretty easy to write on a forehead, and so are “cheat” or “liar.”  But “for unlawful carnal knowledge” is pretty difficult to write on a forehead, even with small writing, so instead the abbreviation of F.U.C.K.” was used.  (Which I immediately erased from the board.)

“So,” I continued, “someone does something you don’t like, or gets you angry, and you say,  “F off!” which is actually like telling him to go have sex.  Or, even worse, you accuse him of having sex with his mother!  This really does not seem to make much sense.”
Well, at this point the class was in an uproar.  It was patently clear that once you begin to think about these words they actually didn’t say anything about how you felt, but only gave a reactionary response.
I did not let up.  I held up my pinky and asked, “Does this bother anyone?”  They didn’t really respond..my pinky was not a problem.  I held up my index finger.  “How about this?”  No big deal.  I held up my middle finger, and said, “What about this?”  They literally recoiled – some laughed, some were horrified.

“Okay, look at your response.  You act as if I’ve just done something terrible – which, in our society it is.  It’s a terrible insult – and it means ‘F you!’  But it’s just a finger.  Really, it’s just something people agreed upon centuries ago to mean something insulting.  But it’s just a finger.

“So a person is driving along on the freeway, and someone cuts him off.  Not polite.  Not nice.  Or maybe just unconscious, worried, on his way to a friend’s hospital bedside.  And what does the person do?  He sticks his middle finger up in the air and yells, ‘Sex You!’ ”  The fact is,  when you have to resort to using such language, you are not even communicating any more.  You’re just automatically reacting.”

They got it.

This was the first time I taught this lesson.  When I went home, I wrote down notes about it, and taught it every year for some time.  It was very effective.

I made it clear to students that, yes, in writing, we want to make sure that the dialogue is real, and so using words like the ones we discussed would reflect the behavior and attitudes of the characters speaking in their stories.  But I asked them to work around it, use other words that show frustration or anger.  (The scenes in my drama book contain no “foul” language, but they do convey a range of emotions.)

But the larger question grew in my mind, which is, “Why do we use such shortcuts to express our anger, frustration, indignation or upset with things or people?”  Maybe if we took the time to really say what’s on our minds, or in our hearts, we’d be a lot better off.  But maybe if we say, “I’m really angry about that,” then we might have to look at what that anger is about.  That takes time, emotional investment.

An aside here – I’m not saying that these words are not expressive.  Yes, I KNOW that if you say “F#&* you!” that you’re upset.  But it doesn’t really go very far to communicate what’s actually going on.

The example I gave my students was “What if you asked someone to copy his/her homework, and (s)he said no.  If you get angry, you can say, “F-you!” and walk off.  But if you explain that the refusal makes you angry, then you might have to look at why that made you angry.  “Well – because I wanted you to do something that I know is wrong, but I wanted you to do it because I didn’t do my work, and I’m upset, and worried, and I’m making you responsible for helping me, but you won’t.”

The thing is, if we use, “F*&# you!” then we don’t really have to confront the fact of our anger, and the cause.   The more we react, rant and rave, the less we are actually looking at why some behavior or response had the impact on us that it did.

And so, as with many of my lessons, there was a reverberation into my own life, as I looked at what it meant when I just instantly reacted, whether in excitement or something more negative.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t at times still instantly react; it does, however, mean that I often look at my response, and reflect on it, and give myself the time and space to perhaps form a different response, one that’s more fitting, and more personally honest.

About Davina

I am a retired teacher, writer and artist. This web site was set up for several reasons. First is to give people a chance to see my art work, and decide if there is something they like enough to contact me. Second is to present my ideas on education and life in general - anything that gets my attention. Feel free to comment in an intelligent manner.
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4 Responses to Bad Language

  1. Jim Gramlich says:

    Davina,
    As usual, your blog’s content was informative, realistic, and very comprehensive.
    Basically, in a nutshell, well done and I enjoyed it’s content(which brought to mind)…
    a few visuals that have lead my OLD-SELF to using the profanities such as the
    F-word and the others mentioned. Being of German ancestry, I am the first to
    admit at times, I used to get angry at most spontaneous situations that involved
    drivers on the highways specifically. Once I arrived at the conclusion that I, myself,
    can’t control their decisions(my EGO talking)…I immediately made a choice to
    incorporate taking in a deep-breath and exhaling, rather than the alternative.
    I have the practice of meditation in my daily-routine to be thankful for, that not
    only keeps me balanced; but, in total-control of my past use of such language.
    Namaste-Jim

    • Davina says:

      Hi, Jim, Yes, a deep breath can sometimes calm us, and make it unnecessary to get all worked up about the guy trying to cut you off on the freeway. I always try to assume that the person is rushing to a sick friend or relative. Probably not, but…

  2. DW says:

    My sister doesn’t use the F word and I do and to me it is a style, a shortcut, and it doesn’t always have to be in anger. In fact I don’t use it in anger. I use it because my friends do. I am in the entertainment business and it is used all the time. It is like a language that makes you recognize others like you. My sister’s friends are different from my friends. I would say more uptight. She might say otherwise. When I hear someone I meet use the word, I feel that we are part of the club. Interesting, no?

    • Davina says:

      Hi, Deryn, I know what you mean. The F word is definitely part of a cultural thing as well, and I agree that in many contexts it’s a word that even evokes a humor, or gives descriptive emphasis. What I was trying to say is that there are so many people who just use it to sidestep deeper communication. (And let me be honest – when I spill paint on something, whether it’s me or a painting I’m not working on, I will resort to the “S” word!

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