Four-Letter Words, Part III


About That

Four Letter Words III

Dealing with the Real Deal

There’s been some carping about the previous two posts: complaints varying from my dealing with profanity (even obliquely) at all or my co-opting the realm of the cuss word to look at words that have four letters, but are not dictionary-defined as vulgar or profane. To the latter complaint, I can only say “That’s freedom of speech; get over it.”

To the first, however, I’ll agree: let’s look at those words.

Now, I’m not going to make a list or give examples of the so-called profanities that foul too much these days. If you’re going to insist, I would refer to almost any stand-up comic today.

Or if you’re up for a recitation with some class, I’d refer you to the late (and dearly missed) George Carlin. It was Carlin who first taught me that the intention behind the word, not the word itself was what made the speech “dirty,” “unacceptable,” “vulgar,” or “Ignorant.” It was a lesson I learned years ago, but wish I’d thought through much sooner.

I first heard Carlin’s words on intentions vs. words when I was a new teacher. Like the true convert, I basked in the revelation without thinking about it much. Then I started teaching middle school Language Arts.

Mind now, this was some years ago. I had a study hall with 12- and 13-year-olds, among whom were young men styling the current fad of long hair over the face, trousers either too big or too small to cover their backsides, and a general color scheme of metal and black.1 One of them came to study hall complaining bitterly that he’d been given detention for uttering one of the milder “cuss words” (by today’s standards).

I cannot say if I was being the true convert, mouthing platitudes to share my bliss. Perhaps I had the idea I could open the young folks’ minds to a new idea and we might have a discussion (yes, I was at best naïve). Or something else entirely like I had no response, but felt I had to say something. At any rate, I uttered the Lesson, and the fellow snapped it up and back at me right away:

“If there’s no bad words, then why can’t we say those words?”

In one of those cases of “If I knew then what I knew now,” I might have fielded that challenge better. What I answered was some cant about rules and using words you understand, etc. Let’s leave it that neither of us was satisfied with my response.

If, however, I could do the exchange again, it might go something like this:

Me: Well, why say them? What’s the point?

Him: Because that’s the way people really talk.

Me: Do they? Have you ever heard me or another teacher talk like that?

Him: You’re teachers. You can’t say stuff like that.

Me (with a chuckle): Think my tongue would fall out if I swore? Trust me, teachers know more cuss word than you can imagine. But answer my question: why do you say cuss words? What’s your thought when you swear.

Him: It’s cool.

Me: Is it? Then why do you suppose people get so upset?

Him: Because it pisses them off.

Me: And that’s what you’re going for? To piss people off?

Him: Or tell ‘em what I think of ‘em.

Me: You mean, disrespect them?

Him: if they diss me, yeah.

Me: And how does the other person react? I mean, if your words have the right effect.

Him: They get mad. Swear back at me.

Me: And then?

Him: I don’t know. Maybe we fight.

Me: And that’s a good thing?”

Him: If I win.

Me: And if you lose?

Him (with a side glance to his friends): I wouldn’t.

Me: I see. Okay. You’re angry because you got detention for using words you think you should be able to say whenever and wherever you want. Words that you intend to make yourself sound cool and pick fights.

Him: You don’t understand.

Me: What am I missing?

Him: My parents cuss all the time. My dad cussed me and my brother out only last night.

Me: Did it make you feel good?

Him: No.

Me: Did you cuss back?

Him: Are you crazy? He’d kill me.

Me: So that was his intention – to piss you off.

Him: I guess. He was mad because I haven’t cleaned my room. For about a month. (We all laughed at that.)

Me: Suppose he could have said that in a slightly different way?

Him: Not my dad.

Me: Suppose you trade places? Do you think you’d want to get after your own son the way your dad gets after you?

Him: He– I mean, heck no. Not at first, anyway.

Me: You might try to use other words, like to encourage your son to do what you want? Make it seem positive, not a punishment?

Him: I guess. If I have kids.

Me: What are some of the words you could use?

Him: I don’t know. I’m only in 7th grade.

Me: So you might need to learn some more words to use.

Him: Yeah. I guess.

Me: How can you do that?”

Him: I don’t know. How long until this period’s over?

Me: Tell you what. Maybe we can find you a whole bunch of new words next year when you’re in my Language Arts class. In the meantime, try reading a book.

I’m going to close the scene there, but you can imagine the derision the last sentence would have receive.

My point here is two-fold: so much of the language we call foul and yet wade through these days is born of bad intentions. We want to shock, irritate, perhaps anger others into paying attention to us (even if the resulting attention is detention or worse); and I think we’ve been conned into believing this is how we have to talk to be understood. Yes, I do mean conned, and conned by people whose own vocabulary is minuscule

– that means tiny. Yes, that means the conmen are ignorant.

Second is the waste. The waste of breath, of time, and of the even better, more concise and pithy words we could be using. Like my personal favorite: Sophrosyne2

Put that one in your vocabulary pipe and smoke it. In other words, if you don’t know what it means, look it up.

In the end, I guess I have to say, if you want to swear, cuss, use profanity and/or be generally vulgar and ignorant, go ahead. You might get a blink from the rest of us. However, please remember: we’re on to you. We know what you’re trying to hide.

Conversely, if you would prefer not to embrace this language path, I will suggest my mantra:


  1. A style I dearly hope has gone away. It becomes a very boring view.

  2. Sophrosyne – healthy state of mind, characterized by self-control, moderation, and a deep awareness of one’s true self; and resulting in true happiness.

  3. I suppose I must, in these times, add “listen to a book,” but it does throw off the rhythm.

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