Profanity is in the air, it seems. Earlier this week in Britain on the TV game show Countdown (which is a live variation of Boggle), a contestant saw a British swear word in the jumbled letters and was awarded points because it was “in the dictionary” as the host said. You can watch the clip from the show here.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court declared the censorship laws of the FCC regarding “fleeting expletives” unconstitutionally vague. We discussed that decision and the difference between swearing, cussing, and cursing here.
Causing a bigger ruckus than Countdown, the popular American sitcom, Modern Family featured a swearing toddler in their latest episode. In this case, it was not a “fleeting expletive.” The show intentionally included a cursing two-year and bleeped out all swear words. When the show premiered last year, the New York Times wrote about how accurately it reflects contemporary American families, and this storyline is an accurate portrait of what many parents go through. With the profanity conundrum, parents of young children may feel an uncanny sense of familiarity. Just as your three-year-old is learning to form complete sentences, to say words like “almost,” and generally to absorb all language around her, she will accidentally acquire some dirty words.
But, as a parent of a swearing child, what would you do? Even if the parent does not swear in front of the child, there are many other opportunities – around older siblings, or even aunts and uncles, and out in public – for children to learn foul language. On Modern Family, the toddler’s dad cannot stop laughing at the situation. In real life, it is hard to explain to a child what “bad” words are. The child will inevitably ask, Why? And that’s a really hard question. Why are some words “bad” and other words “good”? In some cases we have euphemisms to code otherwise illicit topics. (Learn more about euphemisms here.)
Jimmy Fallon’s segment “Shootin’ the Bleep” mocks the use of bleeps to disguise profanity. He highlights the fact that when a word is bleeped on television, the vast majority of the audience knows what word is being censored. So what’s the point? Obviously the point is to preserve decorum despite what is actually there.
Swear words have been censored for a very long time. Before the 1960s, most printers would not allow them in books (which led to coinages like “fug” in Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead). The word “profane” literally meant “in front of the temple” in Latin (pro meaning “in front” and fanus meaning “temple). Good and bad words allow us to mark something as outside of the normal realm. In this way, profane words can be a very important tool of communication, if used sparingly. If you rarely swear, when you do, it is taken with intense gravity. The most honest reply to the innocent question – why do we have bad words – might be, We just do.
How would you deal with a swearing toddler?
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