Gimbling in the Wabe: Words of Power

When I was young, we were not allowed to swear.  Nor to take the name of the Lord in vain.  It wasn’t just profane words, not just swear words, but ugly words, too.  We weren’t allowed to say “crap.”  Or “geeze” (too much like “Jesus”, I guess).  So for years, even as an adult, the strongest phrase I had was “for Pete’s sake.” Whenever I was really upset, it was for Pete’s sake that my emotions ran red.

It was never fully explained to me, never more than “We don’t speak that way in this house.”  It wasn’t that it wasn’t allowed, not that it was wrong or only for the weak minded or anything humiliating like that, but just that it wasn’t something we did.  And if I were honest, I’d have to say that that was enough.  We really didn’t speak that way in our house.  None of us did.

Once, my oldest sister was reading the newspaper at the dining room table, and upon turning the page, it stuck.  No amount of flicking would break the dint that held the pages open.  She tried to hold the paper with one hand and use the other to refresh the crease, but then the whole thing slipped from her grasp.  “Damn paper,” she said, under her breath as she retrieved the pages that were now all skewed.  My father, who had been sitting across from her, reached over and calmly but firmly grasped her wrist.  “We don’t speak that way in this house,” he said emphatically, and released her.  I was amazed.  My father never showed any kind of aggression towards us kids.  This was the one and only time I ever saw him physically restrain any of us in any way.  (I was the youngest, and knew little of discipline beyond disapproval, which was enough).  It left an indelible impact upon me.  I was probably around 12 at the time, my sister 16.  I never heard her swear again.

In college, people around me swore all the time.  “God!” was popular, in every context.  I had no problem accepting swearing in others, but it wasn’t for me.  It’s not even that I refrained from using “those words”; they simply hadn’t become part of my vocabulary.  And it wasn’t a value judgment – I didn’t consider myself better for not swearing – it just wasn’t a part of who I was, the same way I didn’t squish bugs or buy raffle tickets.  I had other ways of fraying my frustration, of expressing my exhilaration, of defining my experiences.

When I became a parent myself, though, I had to really examine why I felt that swearing didn’t have a place in our household.  Unlike me in my childhood, my kids had easy access to television, the movies; heck, they grew up with an internet, a YouTube, a Reddit, a Facebook – trying to censor the language they heard or saw would be a losing cause.  Besides, I didn’t want to censor anything, that wasn’t the point.  It wasn’t about pretending that foul language didn’t exist, or even that it was wrong.  It’s more about what was appropriate.

See, I firmly believe that foul language, obscenities – these “bad words” – are really powerful words.  They have an immediate and strong impact.  They are meant to shock, to explode, to release a karmic bomb of expression.  So the words themselves aren’t bad – it’s that how they are used, when they are used, what they are used against that is often inappropriate.  So the trick was not to tell my kids that they couldn’t use these words, but to try to get them to recognize when and where and how – and if! – it was appropriate to unleash them.

The power behind these words is also finite – this is something I think is too often unacknowledged in today’s freedoms of expression.  The value of strong language diminishes with constant usage.  Someone who peppers their everyday speech with obscenities has then really degraded them from words of power to simply vulgarities.  They become common, of no impact, and that is unfortunate.  Because what does one use, then, when the need arises?  Where do you go when using profanity is the norm rather than the exception?  Saying the words louder?  Spitting them out instead of letting them just slip?  No, the delivery invites confrontation then, it doesn’t bring about a power, it simply bullies.  What used to be words of power are ineffectual – there is no adequate speech left when something demands a stronger reaction.

If we allow our kids, or anyone learning our language (and who of us isn’t continuing to learn our language?), to use strong language too quickly, or if we accept being crass just for crass’ sake, (since when has that every been desirable?), without understanding the power inherent in this strong language, they they risk losing that power behind those words.  There is nowhere for them to go.  If a 12 year old is using profanity, then what does he use when he reaches the complexities of 16?  If a 16 year old is a potty mouth, then how can she use language to help her deal with the emotions of a 21 year old?  If by 21 all the words have lost their power, then dealing with the disappointments, the despairs, the fears, the sudden hurts and cuts, and even the soaring heights that continue to progress with every age have lost an outlet of expression, and that’s a sad and potentially debilitating thing.

I swear now.  Not often, but freely, when it feels right.  My kids don’t swear, at least not that I ever hear them, even though they are both legally adults.  (Ironically enough, I started swearing just after my son – my eldest – was born.  Feel free to insert a smart-alecky parenting joke here.)  My daughter is actually somewhat prudish with language – if something she is watching is obscene, she often will get disgusted with it.  She does understand that swearing has a place and a function in society, though, even if it may be more casual in usage than she appreciates.  She sometimes gets disgusted with me, for how I speak when I drop a freshly washed dish, or die yet again in a video game, or have to deal with rush hour traffic.  But I’m okay with that.  I feel like I’ve given myself enough time to figure out when it’s appropriate to swear, and when to refrain because it’s not, and I’ve given my kids enough space to work it out on their own.

One thing I do not do, though, and I do not tolerate in the house, is using “god” as an exclamation for anything.  This is not so much out of fear of or in homage to any deity, but to honor my parents and the way that they raised me and my sisters.  My parents still feel very strongly about this, not taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain.  So the first time one of my children would ape what they heard so prevalently around them, and utter a “God, that’s dumb!” or a “God, what was he thinking?”, I would very calmly look them in the eye and say, “We don’t speak that way in this house.”  And you know what?  That’s been enough.

~Sharon Browning

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