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April 27, 2013

Editing the color out of my language

The Daily Star

---- — Swearing has historically gotten a bad rap. 

The father of our country, George Washington, took such a dim view of it that he issued an order barring his troops from engaging in the practice, observing that “it is a vice so mean and low, without any temptation, that every man of sense, and character, detests and despises it.”

Any schoolkid can tell you the words that will land him in the principal’s office. George Carlin famously made a comedy routine titled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” (It’s a safe bet to say you won’t be seeing them in this newspaper, either.) And indeed, while some of the words on Carlin’s list have since become less taboo, the Federal Communications Commission still enforces violations of “broadcast indecency.” 

But all that may be changing. 

The FCC has signaled it may be backing off its harsh treatment of what it calls “fleeting expletives.” Notably, outgoing FCC chairman Julian Genachowski actually praised David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, who recently declared that “This is our (expletive) city” in a pregame ceremony honoring the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. 

“David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston,” Genachowski tweeted shortly after Ortiz dropped the F-bomb. 

So, if the chairman of the FCC doesn’t have a problem with it, why should we?

In the interest of full confession, I’ll say here that I am a swearer. I cannot bring myself to feel as Washington did — that swearing is something evil, sinful or wrong. 

That being said, I understand and acknowledge that it is the very fact of being taboo that gives these words their power. Whoever came up with that saying we foolishly teach our children, that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” probably was never called a really bad word by someone they care about. Or had a bad word shouted at them from someone driving by in a car. Because I’m here to tell you: those things do hurt. 

I’ve been thinking about all this because my daughter is nearing that age where she starts suddenly and unpredictably repeating things she has heard. I have a little grace period — right now it’s tough to tell if she’s saying, “dog,” “Dada,” “door” or just making random “D” sounds — but I have it on good authority that these things have a way of sneaking up on you. 

And I am fully aware that four-letter words and other profane utterances have a way of slipping out of my mouth, even when I don’t mean to swear. 

So I am trying to watch myself. I don’t want to get a phone call from day care telling me that my daughter is doing what I did in grade school — that is, teaching her classmates all the bad words she knows. 

I’ve learned from experience that the best way to avoid swearing is to go cold turkey. If just one little bad word trickles out, pretty soon the floodgates are open. 

At work, I’m pretty good at keeping a lid on it, thanks to an array of creative swear-word alternatives. My co-workers are accustomed to hearing me exclaim “Rats!”, “For the love of Pete” or “Sugar plum fairy!” when I’m frustrated. If I’m really steamed, I’ll drop a “Gosh darn it all to heck” on them. 

But when I’m at home — well, let’s just say that my standard utterances include nearly every word on Carlin’s list, plus a few more thrown in for good measure. 

I want my daughter to understand that words have power, and that not all words are appropriate for all occasions. What I refuse to do is to tell her that there are words she cannot speak in her own home. But the piece about how I keep her from saying them at day care? That one still escapes me. 

So for the time being, there’s going to be a lot more “Rats” and a lot less of ... those other words. My daughter may be growing up in a world where people can swear on live TV and not get in trouble for it, but I have a feeling that her elementary school principal might feel differently.

Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. Contact her at