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Sticks and Stones …

July 1, 2012

… may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.

[Warning: this post includes a word or two that may be offensive to some readers. My intent is not to shock or outrage anyone, and so I will apologize in advance if you find anything written below to be distasteful.  Where I feel the word(s) might be particularly scandalous or provocative, I’ve used *** in place of some of the letters, and/or euphemisms for the words themselves.]

Sticks and StonesDo you remember the little rhyme above from when you were a child? Fundamentally, of course, we know it to be true (some might argue that verbal bullying ‘hurts’, but it only becomes harmful when the individual being bullied reacts negatively to what is being said).  What if we changed ‘names’ to ‘words’?  Does the rhyme still apply? Can words ‘hurt’ you, where ‘names’ cannot? Only, I believe, if you let them. So why do we?

Canada DayToday (July 1) is Canada Day – it was on this day in 1867 that Canada became a country under the British North America Act.  Canadians (of which I am proudly one) are general considered to be very polite people – so it might come as a bit of a surprise to some of you that we swear (use profanity, dirty/bad words, cuss) more often than Americans or Britons (according to a 2010 Angus Reid Three-Country Poll on Swearing).  Sh** – that’s a surprise!

Apparently eighty to ninety of the words we speak each day (between .5 and .7%) are swear words (compared to, for example, first person plural pronouns like ‘we’ ‘our’ ‘us’, which make up about 1% of our spoken language).  According to another study (‘The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words’ by Timothy Jay, Department of Psychology, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) there are ten common ‘swear words’ that comprise 80% of the public swearing we’ve heard over the past twenty years (he doesn’t state what they are, but the Online Slang Dictionary lists the ‘100 Most Vulgar Slang Words’ on their website [as voted on by visitors]; honestly, I didn’t recognize most of them!)  These statistics are damn fascinating, if you ask me!

Swear WordSwearing occurs in all cultures and languages.  Certainly there is a social and cultural aspect to swearing (apparently chimpanzees use tonal sounds and body language that could be considered in the same context as human swearing); the words used (and the frequency with which they are spoken aloud) varies widely based on things like where you grew up, how much your parents and/or peers swear, where you work, and how acceptable it is to those around you to use ‘that kind of language’.  Whether used for emphasis, explanation, or ‘just because you can’, it’s the apparent shock value of the words, when spoken aloud, which seem to make them popular (particularly with young people).

Swearing HurtsGeorge Carlin famously outed the ‘Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on TV’ (NOTE: his monologue can be viewed on YouTube; I haven’t provided a link here because of the ‘scandalous’ nature of its content, but if you aren’t offended by a few ‘naughty words’ and you have an adult sense of humour, it’s well worth listening to!)  Rap singers are infamous for scattering ‘nasty bits’ throughout their songs.  College students use profanity seamlessly in just about every aspect of their language (I stopped being shocked by the things 18 to 24 year olds say many, many years ago).  Almost everyone I know swears loudly when they injure themselves (Why is that? How does saying a few ‘bad words’ make the pain feel better?) Swearing seems to be part of our everyday culture.

What is it about certain words that make them ‘taboo’?  And who decides which words constitute the kind of disrespect, negativity, or contempt that makes them deplorable? After all, they are nothing more than letters that form sounds that we – for whatever reason – assign negative perspective to.

For example, why is it okay to say ‘darn’ but not ‘damn’? (Why does that one letter – ‘m’ instead of ‘r’ – make all the difference?)

CrapWhy is ‘sh**’ so shocking when ‘poo’, ‘poop’, ‘crap’, ‘excrement’ (and any of the other dozen or so synonyms for the term) are acceptable?

And why is it considered humourous when the characters of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ repeatedly use the word ‘coitus’, but censors get nervous (although, admittedly, less often these days) about pointed references to couples having ‘sex’ or ‘intercourse’  (not to mention the still-taboo ‘F word’)?  (I could go on and on, but you get my drift …)

Aren’t these all just words? What makes any one of them ‘vulgar’ (other than the fact that we accept them in that context)?  What would happen to them if we (as a society) simply stopped being shocked, surprised, or outraged when we heard them?  What if we dismissed the idea that any word (or words) was more offensive than any other? Or what if we replaced common ‘swear words’ with other words or phrases in our own vocabularies, so that the things we say don’t offend anyone any longer?

Sheep On A ShipFor example, when my husband is (negatively) surprised by something, he generally mutters, ‘Well, sh** on a stick’ – a phrase I (unfortunately) have picked up over the years.  When I caught myself about to utter those words in a situation where it would clearly have been inappropriate, I quickly switched to, ‘Well, sheep on a ship’ (this is also the title of a wonderfully amusing rhyming book by Nancy Shaw that my boys used to love me to read to them when they were little).  Since that almost unfortunate incident, I’ve consciously taken to thinking up alternatives to words and/or phrases that I used to utter without thinking.  For example, in place of the string of expletives I used to release when I would (accidentally) injure myself, I’ll say something along the lines of ‘Jelly fuzzbusters’ or ‘Jumping Jehosophats’  (a oldie, but a goody!)  One of my new favourites comes from watching the BBC series, ‘Coast’: ‘Muckle Flugga’ (this is actually the name of a town on the northern tip of the Shetland Islands in Scotland) – it’s the perfect thing to say when things simply aren’t going your way. (Try it yourself – ‘Muckle Flugga, Muckle Flugga, Muckle Flugga’ – don’t you feel just a little bit better already?)

Honestly, it’s not all the difficult – if you put your mind to it – to change your patterns of speech (and your reaction to the words that others use).  You lose nothing by saying words like ‘gosh’, ‘darn’, ‘fudge’, ‘frickin’, or ‘dagnabit’ in place of the stronger ones you might otherwise mutter (through nothing more than habit) in frustration, anger or nervousness.  And since learning new things is supposed to help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s, I’ve decided it’s a great way for me to improve myself and my mind, now that I’m on … the other side of 55.

Alternate Swear Words

Try these instead!

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