July 21, 2019

Why I Taught Four-Letter Words to My Children

YouthMUSE would like to welcome Guest Blogger – Jay Heinrichs – to our site.

Jay Heinrichs is the author of the bestselling Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion. His latest book is Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever. He maintains a popular language blog, Figarospeech.com

One of the pleasures of adulthood is the opportunity to shock our juniors. I found myself with an especially good opportunity years ago, when my daughter, Dorothy Jr., was five. My wife and kids had joined me for dinner at Dartmouth College’s Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, a giant log cabin where incoming freshmen were given a feast. Dorothy Jr. sat next to me on a long bench, and a freshman sat on her other side. The boy looked really hungry, and for good reason: he had spent two nights camping in the woods and eating badly cooked food as part of his college orientation. Starvation must have made him clumsy or greedy; when he tried to raise a large drumstick of barbecued chicken to his mouth the thing slipped from his hand and dropped onto his lap. Exclaiming the F-word, he picked the chicken off his sauce-covered pants and then glanced guiltily over at Dorothy Jr. My little blond, pigtailed girl was watching his face with interest.

“Oh,” the boy said to me. “Sorry.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “Dorothy, explain to the gentleman what you know about that word.”

“It was originally a term that meant plowing,” Dorothy Jr. said.

“Oh.” He held his chicken uncertainly.

“I know a lot of words,” she explained. “Would you like to hear about some others? Can I have my toys for girls for that?” She listed several more four-letter words and offered to give the etymology of each one.

By now most of the table was staring at Dorothy Jr. The freshman looked across her at me.

“Dude!” he laughed nervously.

Even better than shocking our juniors is using our own children to shock our juniors.

“She’s interested in words,” I shrugged. “All kinds.”

I didn’t explain that Dorothy Jr.’s erudition was part of an experiment of mine to see whether knowledge of taboo words could erase their black magic. If my kids
learned the story of individual “foul” words, would they seem so foul when it
came time to use them? I had assured my skeptical wife that the words would
probably lose their charm; without magic, why cuss? It’s the taboo that makes
blue language work. But my secret hope was that my kids would grow up into
imaginative employers of four-letter words.

And boy, did they. Not to brag or anything, but at 27 my daughter talks like a sailor—a very articulate sailor. I love that she appreciates “bad” words for what they can do to add spice or shock or express rage. Oh, she can be offended; she hates four-letter words when they’re used for no real purpose, or when they’re hurled at people simply to upset them. I like to think that she speaks a lighter shade of blue.

It’s not that I wanted potty-mouthed offspring. On the contrary, I wanted my kids to rise above foulness. Rather than be shocked or victimized by the crude language the permeates our culture, I wanted them to become connoisseurs of language.

Besides “bad” words, I taught them figures of speech as I learned them myself.
I did it partly out of selfishness: sophisticated children are interesting
children. And it’s no accident that the very word “sophisticated” came from the
Sophists, the Greek itinerant scholars who invented figures in the first place.

Figures of speech—little linguistic devices for choosing and organizing your words—make a person sophisticated.

I wrote a book, Word Hero, to teach people about these tools. It’s written for adults, but I taught the tools to my children when they were young. As with four-letter words, I figured that learning those tricks could immunize my kids against their more nefarious effects. Today, when they hear a “plain”-spoken politician use manipulative tropes, they’re able to point out exactly which tropes and what might have worked better. They can rise above the white noise of language that surrounds them.

Still, was it a good idea to teach foul language to my kids? Honestly, I don’t regret it. Our family goes by survival of the wittiest. The more clever members tend to win the arguments. We spend so much time trying to think of something witty that we forget to be angry. An insult without wit is an insult, and merely offensive. A witty insult, on the other hand, is wittily offensive. It’s like having an Ultimate Fighting match with our family and appreciating our opponents’ form as they throw us to the mat.

Sure, others might hurt my feelings. But at least they put some effort into it. Thoughtless insults are the worst of all. I’m hoping the tools in this book let you put some style in your worst-intentioned language. I’ll respect you the more for
it. Even if you’re my own kid.





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