11 Jan 2016

Mind your language

I've never quite got to grasps with swearing. Social situations and generational differences dictate social norms in ways that fluctuate quite a lot which can be confusing for anyone, let alone a pre-teen whose peer group has recently exploded to 6 times the size it was before the Summer. And which now includes much less supervised adult time and far more exposure to people just like him who are all trying to decide who they are by loudly and confidently pushing the boundaries of risqué language now that there are no parents around.

Bedtime, October-ish, year 7
Him: Why is the world so confusing??! Some people say all kinds of stuff that doesn't make any sense.
Me: (Naively thinking this is about homework) Give me an example.
Him: I'll need to spell it out to you cause they aren't very nice words.
Me: Oh, OK. That's fine. Go for it.
Him: Well, I think I know this one, but D.I.C.K.
Me: That's a penis.
Him: (Congratulating himself) Yesssssss! OK - B.I.C.H.
Me: Bitch? (Nods at me) You can use that word properly to describe a female dog, but when people use that badly it's to insult a girl and be really mean to her. Usually for no good reason.
Him: Why compare a person to a dog?!? It's all a bit strange.
Me: I agree.
Him: I have a few more: Doing-it-in-a-girl's-bits-off.
Me: Fuck? (He nods). That's having sex.
Him: Yes, but 'Having sex off??!' That makes NO sense. It's not even proper English. I know that and I'm still learning to spell.
Me: I know babe. It's weird to me too.
Him: People should use their words properly! I'm going to have to tell Coby tomorrow because I'm pretty sure he doesn't know either.
Me: You're probably right there. The thing is - no one wants to be the first to ask the question in front of their mates as they think everyone else knows. It was like that when I was at school too.
Him: OK - Then there's G.A.Y.
Me: Gay? Tricky one. Who says that?
Him: Lots of people. They shout it to people to annoy them, like 'You're so G.A.Y!'
Me: Gay isn't a swear word, it's a feeing. It's when a boy doesn't fancy a girl but fancies another boy instead. Or a girl not wanting a boyfriend, but a girlfriend.
Him: That's so weird!
Me: I think so too - but not everyone feels that way. And it's hard because I think God doesn't want that for anyone but some people DO feel that way, maybe for their whole lives, maybe for just a little while and no one should be bullied for how they feel, should they?
Him: People say that a LOT in school.
Me: But just say someone - maybe even one of your friends - is all stressed out about it and is like 'Oh no - I think I fancy a boy!! And I have no one to talk to about it because if anyone finds out the whole class will know and I'll get called gay and be teased Every. Single. Day.
Him: That would be horrible.
Me: Which is why you never use gay to be mean to anyone. Or any word for that matter.

And then it hits me. Isn't the intention behind the use of language, or the purpose of using certain words or ideas - isn't that more important than the actual individual words we use? Or avoid using?

I mean - you can lie to someone to hurt them, which is not OK.
You can lie to someone to protect yourself out of cowardice - also not OK.
But you can lie to someone to protect their feelings and that's kind of noble.
Then you can lie to someone when you have a surprise birthday or holiday planned and that's completely OK, even though you lied.

And then there's the truth, which should be straightforward, but it's really not always that neutral.

You can tell the truth in order to hurt someone's feelings.
You can tell the truth to gossip.
You can tell the truth to manipulate a situation and gain favour with someone.
You can tell the truth and give far too much information than is useful or helpful or loving.
You can choose to tell the truth for completely the wrong reasons and be wrong in doing it even though what you said was technically correct.

Which brings us back to swearing, because I still don't have the consistent approach to the whole thing that my preteen seems to require.

Me: Do you end up thinking the words in your head just because you're hearing them a lot?
Him: (Sadly) Yes.
Me: Why.... Do you think you don't say those words too?
Him: I just don't think it's a good way to talk. And it's not 'me' - if you know what I mean.
Me: I know exactly what you mean.
Him: It's like I drift.. slowly... away... from God at school (demonstrates with his hands) and then at the weekend when I'm at church I sail right back to him (clasps hands together again).
Me: That's pretty cool actually. Because you can't ever drift away completely. He won't let you.

We talk and talk about this stuff for ages. So much so that ManChild comes upstairs to collect his shower things and hangs around in silence for a while (and maybe learns a thing or two, who knows?) when eventually we are all theorised out and I have to go downstairs because bedtime tonight has taken more than an hour and a half.

Him: Thanks for this. I'm going to write all these words down in case I forget them.
Me: Uh... OK. But where will you keep the notebook?? It has to be someplace safe where no one else can accidentally find it.

He decides on a safe place, which is so safe I'm sworn to secrecy and can't type it because that would be too much of the truth (see above). I continue my theorising downstairs in a more appropriate way with my husband, who can cope with most words in the English language - unless 'tidy up', 'unit' and 'skip' are used in the same sentence.

So.... There has to be a careful balancing of censorship vs freedom in any society that values democracy. It's essential to be able to challenge the status quo or campaign to change stuff that the powers that be are a bit too comfortable with. But isn't it miserable when that freedom is played out in an 11 year old's world with people not bothering to find creative alternatives to 'Fuck off' when they are only moderately (or not at all) irritated by something/someone? Surely the most extreme, emotive and potentially insulting vocabulary that exists in any language should be reserved for things that carry more weight and consequence? Things that mean something.

• the fluidity of the term 'terrorist'
• NHS funding cuts
• climate change
• corruption
• cancer
• injustice
• trident
• tax avoidance
• the arms trade
• Walmart stocking guns but not Kinder eggs
• murder of 2 women/week by a partner (UK)
• preventable death of a child every 3 seconds
• carpet bombing civilians who didn't drown on their way to Calais
I don't like the way you just looked at me right now.

• I am full of adolescent bravado right now and you are annoying me
Fuck off

See the weirdness in all of this?

I am all over the place with this post because I'm actually typing my way towards a realisation that started in my head a long time ago that I need to now act on: Blogging / Facebooking / tweeting is a massive waste of time and I need to rein it in. Instead I need to fill my mind with stuff like this and constructive information about the issues listed above and start bugging the hell out of my MP again. Because I used to do this a lot and he's probably missing our correspondence.

BTW, the following bedtime was less intense, quicker and included a sentence I didn't anticipate ever saying to my kid: 'Babe, you forgot the 't' in 'bitch'...'


  1. This is my world right now too. I made a deal with my highschoolers - "You can ask me what any - ANY - word means and I will tell you. Don't ever look it up by yourself or repeat it because someone dares you to. Check it out with me and I'll be totally honest with you. I'll even look it up if I've never heard of it." So we've had these conversations of what words mean and why we shouldn't say them, but I still can't answer the question of why anyone would WANT to say them! And we've gone from being a household where swearing was never even mentioned, to the younger ones now asking the older ones about it all the time and somehow we keep having conversations about it. So my little ones now are way more aware of this stuff than their siblings were at this age and it makes me want to never let any of them leave the house again. I hate swearing. It's a substitute for thinking and speaking properly and its only used to shock and offend :(

  2. I really get that. And it's tricky to navigate - especially with a kid whose love language is words : ( But I'm even MORE bothered by the fact that people are just plain manipulative - both in the classroom, in wider society and internationally too. It's like the thrill a kid might get from whispering swear words or causing trouble between people in a small group is played out in adulthood in far bigger and scarier ways, magnified into stuff that wrecks marriages, controls the media, lets backhanders destroy competition and results in a world where it’s more profitable to bomb a country rather than feed and educate its children. It's like the same sin-sickness causing more destruction the more powerful the host.

    And then I’m frustrated by my kids’ thinking they can’t change the culture in a classroom.

    Then I realise I’m a big fat procrastinator for letting that same sense of disempowerment stop me from trying to change anything. Like REALLY try and change it. Not just posting the odd thing on Facebook to people who probably agree with it anyway.

    Then I think if I were God I would have given up on our species a long time ago. Then I am glad I am not God because there’s a lot of good stuff in the world too and I really don’t want to mess with any of that and actually, when you are a finite person with a limited understanding of the world you happen to be placed in right now then you’re probably not the best person to judge when things have gone too far to be salvaged.

    Then I get distracted by shiny things and forget to google who I should be complaining to...