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Kids and swearing


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With our older daughter having become (I'll confess through osmosis) a big fan of people like standup comedian Dylan Moran - who is a terrifically intelligent and deliberately profane artist, in the best sense of all those words - this question has been much on my mind lately: is it a big deal? My own sense is, no; the worst thing is where it's dealt with aggression or hostility, which for me is the real problem. So I'm inclined to disagree with this op-ed, but I'm also sure there are lots of shades of gray, too.

The Sacred Profanities

When my son was about two, I was driving into a car park, and as the barrier went up he said what sounded like "thank you, thank you". I explained that as it was a thing and not a person, a thank you wasn't necessary, but I was delighted by his grasp of good manners. He repeated it at the ticket machine, however, and it was then that I realised that what he was saying was not "thank you, thank you", but "fucking wanker". Clearly those manners hadn't been grasped as tightly as I'd hoped.

Now, I swear fairly freely in casual conversation, but rarely in front of small children. And since the phrase "fucking wanker" is – trust me on this – spectacularly shocking from the mouth of a two-year-old, I decided I should investigate where he'd learned it from. I asked our childcarer and various friends if they could shed any light on why our toddler was talking like a celebrity chef, or a Bullingdon Club boy on a night out.

It transpired that he had overheard an altercation between a builder and a van driver who'd clipped his wing mirror. He was mimicking what he'd heard. In spite of a friend's assertion that, growing up in London, the phrase "that van driver is a fucking wanker" could be a valuable lesson, I began the inevitable parenting process of explaining that while we loved to hear new words he'd learned, there were some words that weren't quite as nice/acceptable/suitable as others.

So why, when I joined the cast of The Thick of It, did I enter so gleefully into Malcolm Tucker's expletive-filled argot? Did I really believe that certain words weren't "nice", or was it that the rules were different for grownups? And why have so many people asked whether I will be using some of the stronger words in the show? Just as I was shocked to hear strong language from my child, are there still people who are shocked by hearing a woman swear?

There is a line in Inherit the Wind where the Clarence Darrow character is berated for swearing – he says damn – and defends himself by saying: "I don't swear just for the hell of it. Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we've got."

It's a fine sentiment to justify swearing as a tool that expresses extreme emotion or even as an ornament to entertain. In reality though, it's more often used as a discourse marker. We swear in much the same way as we say er, or y'know. It buys us time and saves us having to think of an alternative. It's a lazy and, yes, still offensive form of punctuation, and there have been occasions when I've found myself staring self-righteously at people in the street who pepper their chat with expletives, regardless of who is listening.

After The Thick of It goes out I may lose the moral high ground on that, but the swearing in the show is anything but casual. It is lovingly hand-dredged from the finest mire. Each abusive javelin is hurled by a team of gifted writers. Indeed, it is reported that the show uses a "swearing consultant"– which is certainly half true. The swearing is shocking and funny, but its violence adds a sense of menace and pressure to the characters and their situations. It is the most inventive invective I've ever heard, and I firmly believe that it's not only justified but should be required viewing for lovers of the English language.

But that doesn't make it required viewing for children. The film version of Fantastic Mr Fox is full of seeming expletives, but with "cuss" substituting for bad words. I could just about bear my innocent babes – out of whose mouths swearing is still forbidden – viewing that. But will they be watching The Thick of It? Not cussing likely.

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We did the swear jar thing for a while; I think the fortune that Cass made made her reflect on the value of these words, that they are words specially set apart and not to be used gratuitously. It's funny, though; I remember swearing like the kids in South Park when I was the age of the kids in South Park, and nobody was ever the worse for it.

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