My son is waving a stick in the park and we’re trying to keep him quiet. It’s not that we’re ashamed of his ebullience. It’s just that we’re having a few vocabulary issues at the moment. As a two-year-old, he has not yet mastered the ‘st’ consonant cluster that begins the word ‘stick’, which means his delight at this object is causing him to scream something that sounds very like ‘my dick, my dick!’ to every person we meet.
Other syllables also present issues. He mixes up ‘tr’ sounds with ‘f’ sounds, which is fine when chattering about his trains (‘fains’) or their tracks (‘fax’), but more alarming when the subject turns to his trucks (you get the picture). We lightly correct him so that he doesn’t twig that there’s anything funny or rude about what he’s saying because we don’t want him to start doing it for effect. And that is a real risk because, if I’m being honest, the effect on me is quite pronounced.
Because of my urbane manner and sophisticated prose, you probably imagine I’m above such things. Doubtless, you presume I spend the long winter evenings reading Viking poetry in the original Norse and that I find nothing funnier than those New Yorker cartoons about psychiatrists. The truth is I find nothing, and I mean nothing, as funny as my son shouting ‘f**k, f**k, f**k’ as he shoves a truck toward camera on a Zoom call with his grandparents.
Taboos about swearing have never made much sense. Even the nomenclature we use derives from times when people balked at wielding evil spirits (cursing), or invoking sacred names (swearing), holdovers from a time when blasphemous or sexual language was about as socially acceptable as coughing in public is now.
These days blasphemy isn’t really thought about in those terms, and daytime TV programmes run segments about people who marry their sex-dolls, so every possible root for these proscriptions has been pulled up, and yet the taboo words themselves remain.
One sign we’ve moved on is in the asterisks I used earlier. There’s no way of reading f**k without reading the word it obscures in your own head, and it’s physically impossible to say it out loud. It seems as if we’ve all agreed the words are meaningless and fine but are all too scared to be the first ones to say it, so have all pretended a few removed letters are an effective linguistic fig leaves. We pretend that ‘f**k’ or ‘s**t’ or ‘k**x’ aren’t really swear words at all. In fairness, I made ‘k**x’ up, and you still read it as a swear word, which proves my point.
None of this matters, of course, since I too am a product of my environment. For all my philosophical bafflement at such verbal interdicts, the idea of my son deliberately swearing hurts my heart. I don’t want a potty-mouthed child before he’s potty-trained. Just let me get a few more laughs out of it first, and then I’ll sort it out. I swear.
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