I’m trying to explain to my 9 year-old, who’s heard my wife and me swear now and then, just why he shouldn’t use these words himself. I don’t want to shield him from the world, pretending that this vocabulary doesn’t exist, and “it’s not for kids,” on its own, doesn’t cut it for me. I decided to explain that it’s very very hard to know when to use these words in ways that they won’t offend someone, or get him in trouble, tan o the extent that someone – a teacher, a peer, an older kid at school – won’t be so offended as either to lash out at him or write him off completely, as someone who doesn’t know how to act around others, and so can’t be counted on. He’s very rule-abiding by nature, and this explanation seems to have resonated with him, which is a big relief to me, for every reason you can imagine.
But just why shouldn’t he use these words? Why are most of us so careful about when and how we use them? I’m sure any number of linguists and cultural anthropologists have worked on this, and apologies to them for my new-to-the-subject ignorance, but it strikes me that the key is that every swear word carries with it the implicit threat that the swearer could become violent toward anyone who doesn’t agree with whatever statement he’s using swearing to make stronger. When you swear, it’s either an explicit insult – “Fuck you!” – on in a statement in which the swearing is meant to put the assertion beyond discussion. As in, “That’s fucking insane!” Adding the “fucking,” here, means you’re not going to discuss the question of its insanity. Indeed, you’re so unwilling to discuss this, that you’ve indicated, by using a word that’s not accepted in polite society, that where the question of the insanity of it, this thing, is concerned, you’re unwilling to abide by polite society’s rules. Implied in this, it seems obvious to me, having thought about things while trying to figure out how to get my 9 year-old not to swear, is that you’ll match violence of utterance with violence of act, if anyone challenges you. Which, obviously, is quite some thing to assert, and a good reason not to do so lightly, if you want others to take you as someone who’ll always defer to reason, in relating to those around you. Which, in turn, is a practice that’s extremely highly valued, among the educated – the class to which my wife and I belong, despite our occasional swearing, and to which we want our kids also to belong, and to understand themselves as belonging to. And thus a good reason not to swear, except among those who, you are absolutely sure, won’t take this the wrong way – who know you well enough to know, you mean it only as a joke, or else lightly, i.e. not as a threat of violence, or, perhaps worse, as a sign of unculturedness, which is how it might be taken, by anyone else.