When our eldest daughter was quite young, my wife supplemented our income by providing child care in our home. Amber seemed to enjoy the company of her daily playmates, one of whom was a boy her age named Dylan. The two of them got along well, whether they were building with cardboard bricks or guiding a toy school bus through the living room. One day, however, the mood suddenly turned sour, and that’s when my wife first heard it.
Was it a nonsense word, or was it simply an approximation of something one of them had heard? While its origin would remain a mystery, its meaning would not. Over the next few days, the word deebies resurfaced, sometimes arising in a moment of anger and other times sputtered in mock frustration followed by giggles. We looked at the little ones in amazement. Apparently, they had invented their very own swear word.
Once we realized this, we implemented one of the strangest rules ever to be declared in our home. All utterances of the nonsense word deebies were strictly verboten. Lest one assume that we overreacted, I must explain that Amber and Dylan were using their invented invective with all the percussive emphasis of a passionately delivered profanity. The word itself sounded harmless out of context, but it lost its innocuousness the moment one of them spat it out between clenched teeth. They might as well have been saying – well, you name it.
The whole episode sounds silly, and it was. Yet it wasn’t, at least not completely. For the natural behavior of these two toddlers suggests to me a key to understanding the etymology and offensive power of swear words. Why does society condemn certain words as obscene? Context and connotation. It’s not only where, when, why, to whom, and how you say a word, it’s also the emotional baggage attached to that word.
One of the best examples of this idea that I have seen appeared in, of all places, a Saturday morning cartoon. In a 1999 episode of the ABC series Recess, the character of T.J. Detweiler inadvertently sparks a firestorm of controversy after he expresses displeasure by using the invented expletive whomps (as in, “Man, that whomps!”). The expression catches on with the rest of the student body, causing the faculty to go into a tizzy. Eventually, the utterance of whomps is banned at school.
It’s all very silly and entertaining, what with mature adults getting worked into a froth over something so trivial and apparently inconsequential. Yet, as an elementary school teacher, I can envision such a scenario playing out in real life. At issue is the intention of the speaker. If a child uses an invented word in the place of a profanity in order to express the same level of disrespect, contempt or subversion that would have been conveyed by an actual expletive, then the effect is much the same. Thus, the nonsensical word becomes, in the proper context, as offensive as a swear word. And since it is the offensive connotation of expletives that makes them objectionable in the first place, faux-profanity may justifiably be banned in circumstances that prohibit the real thing.
I have seen children attempt to worm their way out of trouble by ignoring this fact and clinging to the most literal interpretation of student conduct rules. They will, for example, try to use the foulest profanity against a peer by subtly modifying the expletive into an invented, sound-alike swear word. They will put their phonics knowledge to use by employing the beginning sound of a forbidden word and then suddenly finishing with an unexpected, inoffensive alternative. And when filthy words fail them, they will attempt to circumvent the ban against rude gestures by confronting a classmate with an extended ring or index finger.
“I didn’t flip him off,” desperate students will cry out when caught, “I was doing this!” They will argue and emote with the vehemence of a trial lawyer. That is when we educators may capitalize on the so-called teachable moment and deliver a memorable lesson on the vital difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. In essence, it’s what you mean, and not necessarily what you say, that matters.
It’s an important point that we may easily overlook, and when we do, it makes the whole concept of obscene words seem ridiculous. George Carlin, the late comedian whose forte was observing and deconstructing language, knew this and exploited it to his advantage. His brilliant “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine (and all of its subsequent incarnations) worked because it masterfully emphasized the absurdity of profanity while deftly downplaying the sociological mechanisms that render any given speech as inappropriate within a particular setting. Indeed, why should any word get labeled arbitrarily as “bad” and thereafter become unsuitable for everyday use? Taken out of context, Carlin’s infamous seven words sound hilariously inoffensive.
The fundamental truth is buried in the collective psyche of humankind. The average person, whomever and wherever he or she may be, will consider certain ideas and expressions to be offensive to the degree that such things are better left unsaid. Just what is considered objectionable varies widely according to individual tastes, hence the perpetual battles over obscenity. However, I will speculate that we are offended when that which we esteem is not regarded with due respect. Whatever we define as profanity is merely an extension of this.
Personally, I am not offended when a friend thoughtfully uses R-rated vocabulary in the course of a private conversation. Nor do I mind the employment of blue words in entertainment, providing there is some artistic or aesthetic point to it. However, if I’m walking down the aisle of the local supermarket and another shopper is mindlessly dropping f-bombs while loudly talking on a cell phone, I’m offended. Same words, different context. I’m offended because the coarse stranger is showing me no consideration, and I believe that I am due a modicum of respect in a civilized society. Likewise, I feel a moral obligation to at least consider the sensitivities of others and respond appropriately.
That is why deebies simply had to go. Not because there is anything inherently wrong with it. Not because it sounds objectionable. But if you had heard Amber and Dylan using it, you would agree. Those toddlers were cursing like sailors. And in the context of our home, at least, the use of that sort of language from such tiny mouths is considered offensive.
And if you don’t like it, I guess that just whomps.