“That’s a Bad Word”

I grew up in a home where “heck” was a bad word. And “dang.” And “gee.” And “gosh.” Heck, after all, was just code for “hell,” and dang was code for “damn,” and gee was code for “Jesus,” and gosh was code for “God.” And thus they were all off limits. Shoot was about the only word that was okay, which is weird because I’m pretty sure that if the other words are really code, that one’s code for “shit.”

When you’re not allowed to say even the most innocuous swear words, you have to get creative. Which for us meant a whole lot of saying “oh my goodness” or “good gracious.” People who overheard us in the grocery story or at the library must have thought we stepped out of the wrong century! 

We learned to get around the strict rules in other ways, too. For example, we found that you didn’t have to use swear words to cuss out a sibling. It’s totally possible to be extremely hurtful without a single word that’s not standard English. Not using swear words didn’t mean we didn’t ever tear each other down with our words. It just meant that we had certain words to avoid and certain rules to follow.

The weird thing is that my parents always told me that it was the heart attitude that mattered rather than outward appearances, and that the “spirit of the law” mattered more than the “letter of the law.” Somehow this didn’t apply to using swear words. Swear words were bad, no matter how they were used, and using one of them in any circumstances, no matter how innocuous, could get you punished.

When I went to college – and a state college at that – I received quite the education. Just walking on the sidewalk between classes was eye opening. And one thing I learned was that swear words weren’t always used against people. In fact, I found that, on the college campus at least, swear words weren’t generally used to tear people down but rather simply as a normal part of conversation. And quite frequently at that.

I also found that there were swear words I had never even heard uttered before. “That sucks” was incomprehensible to me. What did it even mean? And I must say, I had a bit of a surprise waiting for me when I looked up the word “fuck” in the dictionary. I’d never heard it before, and had no idea what it meant. This was one of those words, though, where context was ultimately more helpful than a dictionary definition.

It took me a long time to grow acclimated to the constant use of words I had been taught were so taboo. Now some who still adhere to the views my parents taught me about “bad language” might say that my “growing acclimated” to it was a problem. But the thing is, like I said before, what I was growing used to was not the use of these words in hateful ways but rather merely their use as a normal part of conversation.

What I’ve come to realize is that the specific words that are used is less important than whether words are used to hurt others. The problem doesn’t come in with the use of swear words. The problem comes in with the intent to cause others pain. As I learned growing up, you can cause others a great deal of pain without every using swear words, and as I’ve learned since heading away to college, you can use swear words without ever causing an ounce of pain.

The issue isn’t what words you use. The issue is what you use your words to do.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    That’s very true, here in Spain we find very strange the way anglo-saxon people seem more scared of their kids hearing swear words than watching violence in TV for example (The South Park Film played on that). Here, people also try to avoid their kids using bad words but between close adult friends it wouldn’t be unlikely to hear “what a son of a bitch you are” in a loving tone with a positive meaning (obviously it depends on people and the type of relationship, for example I wouldn’t say that but my mom does say I have a foul mouth XP). Swear words give spice to colloquial language and we Spaniards have a “bad fame” compared to other Spanish-speaking countries.

  • Caravelle

    Of course “oh my goodness” is code for “oh my god”. Probably the same with “Good gracious”.

    I think swear words can be a problem in that hearing them can cause almost physical pain if you’re not, well, acclimated to them. It’s certainly extremely distracting. That is a decent reason to be careful with them. Of course if you hear them enough you become acclimated and they’re no longer as much of an issue, which can be a decent reason to not avoid them.

    The problem is that everybody has their own “level” of words they use, words they avoid but are used to hearing, and possibly words they can’t stand. You can’t just assume everybody you speak to will have the same reaction to swear words that you do, in either direction.

    I also started swearing a lot more after I went to University. I didn’t even notice it until my brother started complaining. At the time I made fun of him over it, but having been in his shoes I can’t really fault him for being uncomfortable either.

    Then again, there is no excuse for refusing to watch The Wire on account of the swearing. Not when you’ve got the politics and taste in fiction my family does. Thankfully they came to their senses eventually…

    There’s an interesting study on swearing in the UK, I don’t know if you read it :

    It’s a huge survey of how offensive various words are considered, by whom, and comparing it to a similar survey done in 1998. One interesting upshot is that the biggest change between 1998 and now is that terms of abuse (racial slurs, etc) are considered a lot more offensive now than they were ten years ago. There is also a significant young/old and male/female dichotomy.
    (of course this is in Great Britain, and a lot of the swear words they look at show it)

    • Contrarian

      I think swear words can be a problem in that hearing them can cause almost physical pain if you’re not, well, acclimated to them. It’s certainly extremely distracting. That is a decent reason to be careful with them.

      This is a fair point, although I think the discomfort is often funny. Something similar goes for challenging deeply-held beliefs, such as faith. If we want to avoid paining people, we should avoid challenging their faith as well as avoiding swearing.

  • Anat

    OTOH there is empirical evidence that swearing increases one’s pain tolerance. And it doesn’t matter which swear word is used, as long as the person doing the swearing considers it such. But the benefit is greater the less one swears when not in pain. So it’s a good idea to have some words one considers to be swear words and use them sparingly – especially when one is in pain.

  • ArachneS

    I didn’t even know what most swear words were when I was little. I knew that “damn” was bad and that you couldn’t say it, and I think that is about it. In fact, during a Sorry! game with the neighbor girl, we were explaining how the blue was heaven and the green was limbo and the yellow was purgatory and the red was hell(we were encouraged to put bits of religion into anything and everything) she looked at us shocked and said “You just said a bad word!” We could not figure out what she was talking about, until she whispered “hell”, and even then we thought she was wrong. After all, we knew that swear words were bad bad bad, and if our mom and dad didn’t mention it and even talked about hell, it couldn’t be bad to say!
    The funny thing is, I was pointing out words spelling “Hello” to one of my parents on our closet ceiling once when I was 17 or 18 and the ‘O’ was obscured, so I said “It looks like “Hell” up there.” Then they immediately said, “hey… watch your language!” I was nonplussed. lol.

    My first job when I was 15 was funny. I said a lot of “holy moly!” and “oh my word”. The other kids my age would treat me more like a goody goody little kid instead of a peer. And to be honest, I didn’t have most of the experiences they had, being so sheltered. It wasn’t until 16 or 17 that I could acclimate and make friends with the people I worked with.

  • http://www.freeratio.org/ Brian63

    Isn’t it so silly that a word in the language is considered off-limits? Shouldn’t we instead try to express our innermost thoughts and feelings in as precise a way as possible? If we just set aside certain words as being inutterable, that hinders our ability to accurately say what we mean, and for others to correctly understand what we say. From now on, let’s just deem the word “umbrella” to be off-limits to use in polite discourse, and see if that helps or hinders our overall ability to communicate.

    I have participated on forums where certain swear words are automatically filtered by the software, but people get around it by just typing out “f&ck” or “a$$” instead. When others read those words, we all know exactly what words they *really* mean and the real words get momentarily implanted in our minds. We are just not allowed to say them out loud, because then our minds would explode…or something.

    “The issue isn’t what words you use. The issue is what you use your words to do.”

    Your whole post is excellent Libby, and you perfectly summed it up as well.

    I am grateful to not have any kids though, because I do not know how I would explain to them that it is okay to use certain words at home around me, but that in the society-at-large it suddenly become inappropriate to say them. Has that come up with you yet?


    • Caravelle

      As Tim Minchin said, “at this point f**k means “fuck” more than “fuck” means “fuck” !”

    • http://findingsnooze.blogspot.com Lina

      My mom explained it to me as “When you know someone is comfortable with certain words, it’s okay to use them, but until you know that you won’t be accidentally offending them, it’s impolite to.” I’m not sure how I’ll phrase it to my kid, but I like that middle ground. I don’t want to teach my (future) kids that there are off-limits words, but, like many words, context and audience is important.

      • minuteye

        Kids learn pretty soon after they start school that the way they talk to their teacher is different from the way they talk to their friends which is different from the way they talk to their parents. You can see it in bilingual children; even if they’re speaking a mix of languages at home, they very rarely address an adult in a language the adult doesn’t speak.

  • Jeremy

    Not only were swear words off-limits, I was taught that “cool” was a bad word because it represented acceptance of popular culture. (Of course, since we were atheists, “Oh, God” was just fine!) Once I said “Damn,” and another time I called my mom a bitch. I was never allowed to live those down; they were irrefutable proof that I had gone bad and was ruined as a person.

    Word policing sucks.

    • Caravelle

      It’s funny that “Oh, God” would be just fine to your atheist parents but “Damn” wouldn’t be.

  • Kat

    Love this. Words are only “bad” when they’re used to hurt people. I mean, If I say to pretty much anybody (even my Grandma), “You’re fucking awesome!” they’ll probably feel pretty great. If I say “You’re a big disappointment,” I didn’t use a “swear,” but I probably made somebody feel pretty bad.
    This also reminded me of the confusion I faced as a child trying to figure out which words were “bad” and which one’s weren’t. I remember being allowed to say “gee” but getting sent to me room for saying “geez” (explanation from my mom? “geez” is clearly short for “Jesus,” whereas “gee” is what “Dennis the Menace” says, gosh darn it…I still maintain that “geez” is a contracted form of “gee whiz” but my mom didn’t buy it).
    I also remember getting “darn” and “damn” mixed up a lot as a kid, I knew one was OK to say and one wasn’t, but I would forget which one. I remember at about 6, being pretty confident that “damn” was the “good” word, and then being punished for using it. Arbitrary rules are arbitrary.

  • Alexis

    I had never heard the word “damn”. I was singing a song where I misheard the word “damn” as “dang”. My mom thought I was actually singing “damn” instead of “dang”. She quietly took me aside and suggested I sing the “darn”. I was totally puzzled, because we used the word “dang” all the time. It wasn’t until long afterword that I figured out what had gone on there. And I’m quite glad I didn’t get my mouth washed out with soap! Has anyone else gotten their mouth washed out for saying something that you didn’t know was a “bad” word until you got punished for saying it?

  • JenL

    The one that set me back when I was a kid was the time my brother and I were hanging out talking to the new kids on the block – a family of with 4 kids (ages 6 to 12, maybe) had just moved from … Jackson Hole, maybe?, to the metro Phoenix area. The family had previously sent their kids to the school run by their church, but with another kid now school-aged, plus not being a member of a local church in order to get the tuition discount, plus the dad couldn’t get a better-paying job than janitor – they decided mom should home-school. We understood that to mean they were probably pretty religious, and my brother and I were both watching our language around them (with an older brother working construction, the basic swear words were all heard around the house at one time or another).

    And then the mom pulled me aside and asked me to ask my brother to watch his language. I had NO idea what she was talking about. So I asked her to tell me *exactly* what words she wanted him to avoid.

    She didn’t like the fact that he had said, to the one kid who was being intentionally annoying, “you’re starting to piss me off”. And she didn’t like him using the word “piss”.

    Okay, I get that it’s a word for a bodily function. But really? (Is sneeze a bad word, too?) I just kind of looked at her in disbelief. She walked away, and I never did figure out if she realized that my silence was a mental “wait, what?” as opposed to any kind of assent or disagreement.

    • Rosa

      My sons cousins are being much more gently reared than he is, so we have little talks about what is considered polite at their house before we visit. When they were all 4 or 5 years old my son said “butt” in conversation and his cousin was all “YOU SAID A BAD WORD MOMMY HE SAID A BAD WORD!!!”

      He turned around and said to the grownups “What bad word? I didn’t say ass!”

      • minuteye

        I love that! What was he supposed to say, I wonder… “posterior”? “derriere”?

      • Jeremy

        “Bottom.” That was the only acceptable word in my family. And “pee” was the only acceptable alternative to “piss.”

      • http://salami-orchids.blogspot.com PlumJo

        That’s hilarious! It reminds me of this time my dad let me “drive” the car. I was two years old, and we were on our way home from my aunt’s wedding. In my little flower girl dress I sat on my dad’s belly with my hands on the wheel to “steer”. As other cars drove past us, or I drove past a parked car, I said things like “Look at this asshole!” and “Here comes another asshole!”, “asshole” being my mother’s favorite epithet to use while driving. My parents and brothers were howling with laughter, and still do at anything that even reminds them of this– I remember bouncing up and down while I was driving because my dad was laughing so hard.

        I wasn’t punished, because really, how could I be? It was hilarious and I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong– and it was completely my mother’s fault. She started calling other drivers “sweetheart” sarcastically after that.

        On the other hand, about a year ago, I was pulling something out of the oven and I burned myself. I knew my four year old nephew was in the room, so I censored myself by saying “Stupid!” instead of the many other words I wanted to use. I got the oven closed and my nephew came up to me, “Aunt Joz, Aunt Joz!” So I picked him up and said, “What’s the matter, honey?” He took my face in his little hands, looked me in the eyes and said very seriously, “That’s not a nice word, Aunt Joz, it’s not nice.”

        Needless to say I was thoroughly chastened. Haven’t been able to say it since.

    • Hibernia86

      I have pretty liberal parents and even they don’t like me using the phrase “pissed off”

      • JenL

        Huh. I wonder if that’s a family-by-family thing, or if it’s a regional thing?

  • LicoriceAllsort

    Oh, man. When I was six I gave my mom double middle fingers because a fourth-grader on the bus told me it meant hello. My mom was pretty aghast (it was in front of a bunch of other kids, no less) but, thankfully, quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. She took me aside later that day and gently explained that middle finger = the eff word, and I was completely mortified. Now I wonder how I knew what the eff word was when I was 6 but didn’t know about middle fingers…?

    But more to your point, I can still recall on another occasion hearing from her, “I wish you’d never been born”. I remember it as clearly as I recall getting smacked across the face or getting spanked with a leather belt, and not a single swear word was used. That has a lot to do now with my intolerance for admonitions about “tone”—I’d much rather be concerned with the content of words than with what they sound like to polite ears.

    • Hibernia86

      When I was 7, I was sitting in the car with my grandparents making up nonsense words when I accidently made up the N-word. They were shocked and asked where I’d heard it. I told them I’d made it up. I’d never heard it before but I could tell that whatever it was, I shouldn’t be saying it. They just told me not to say it any more.

  • BabyRaptor

    I’ve never bought into the idea of “bad” words. Why are they bad? Because your parents said so? Well, why do they think that? Because their parents told them.

    Words are sounds used to communicate because we can’t read each others’ minds. People need to put their collective big people panties on and stop getting offended at the sounds used rather than the idea the person is trying to get across.

    And the best part is when people pull the “Only uneducated people swear” card. I get a real laugh out of that. If you have to resort to nitpicking other peoples’ words to get your ego stroke, you’re probably screwed.

    • kisekileia

      YES. THANK YOU. I get glared at for using “friggin’” in my family, and I’m in my late 20s.

  • Meggie

    As a teacher I am very strict on the language used in my classroom. I want my students to learn that certain language is appropriate in some places but not others. I never talk about it as swearing but instead, I focus on tone of voice not actual choice of words. For example; this week a boy was struggling to get his saxophone to play and said “Damn this instrument”. I pulled him up straight away, “Please don’t speak like that in my classroom”. He answered “Is damn a swear word? Can I say sugar instead?” He tried it out “Oh, sugar.” The problem is that although the words are quite innocent, the tone is still very aggressive and that is what I don’t like. I directed the student to a sign I put up on my wall a few weeks ago. “I AM VERY FRUSTRATED BY MY INABILITY TO PLAY MY MUSICAL INSTRUMENT CORRECTLY.” It is hilarious hearing a child try to say the full sentence and by the end, all the frustration is gone and the class will be giggling.

  • Monimonika

    At first my father regulated my and my sisters’ appropriate speech for words like “shit” (use “shoot” instead) and “fuck” (don’t use at all). But after a while and a couple of slip-ups from my father himself, he gradually loosened the restrictions as we got older.
    One restriction he still maintains, though, is to not use the word “hate” in reference to a person. “You don’t ever ‘hate’ someone. You either don’t like them, or they make you upset, but don’t ever ‘hate’.” I deeply admire my father for this lesson.

  • LeftSidePositive

    It just seems necessary to post these here:

  • Karen

    I’m 52. I didn’t swear much in (Catholic) high school or (State) college; my vocabulary did get rather vulgar when I went through the stress of installing flight simulators in a far-away state, when I was traveling 3 weeks on, one week home, and every bug I encountered was another obstacle to getting home permanently. (I should have told them to take that job and shove it, but I was too invested in the success of my own engineering designs.) Nowadays, I swear carefully and thoughtfully, and my standard response to surprising and upsetting things is “Oh. Wow.” … while I think about ways to deal with this latest obstacle in my life. OTOH, I can swear like the proverbial sailor when I’m really angry and I feel the audience can handle it.

  • Karen

    Most often, the swearing-like-the-sailor invective is used on the cats, who are “oh, Mommy’s upset again, she’ll get over it, I’ll get on with my nap.”