When you’re a parent, you find yourself having strange conversations now and then with your children. Sometimes they go like this (true story):

“Mom! He hit me in the butt!”

“We don’t say ‘butt.’ We say ‘bum.’ ”


“Well. Um. Just because. It sounds better.”

Or this one in the car not too long ago:

The six-year-old drops something and says, “Damn it!”

“Oops,” I say to Hubby. “Pretty sure he got that from me. Oh, man. What if he says that around other people? Then they’ll know that WE talk like that.” To the six-year-old: “You don’t say that at your friends’ houses, do you?”

“I said it at Spencer’s house.”

“Oh, great. Okay, well, we only say it at our house, okay? Because it’s okay in our family, but some families don’t like it.” To hubby again: “Is it a double standard if we let him say ‘damn’ but not ‘butt’?”

“Yes,” Hubby says, “but I’m okay with that because I don’t like ‘butt’ and I’m okay with ‘damn.'”

I laughed. “And what about ‘kick butt,’ like ‘kick-butt herbs’? For some reason I’m okay with that phrase. It’s all pretty arbitrary, isn’t it?”

And of course there was the time that the six-year-old, when he was four or five, pointed at someone’s stuff on the curb across the street, waiting to be picked up by Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and said, “What the hell is that?”

Yeah, we say that too. And we got a good laugh over hearing our kid imitate us. Somehow adult phrases sound so much funnier in kid voices.

Isn’t it crazy how arbitrary we can be about our word preferences? Arbitrary and yet absolute in our opinions.

We refuse to use either four-letter F word in our house, while most people probably struggle to think what the second one is (hint: we have our kids say they “passed gas” instead). I hate the sound of both of those F words, and Hubby does too.

On the other hand, I love the feel of “damn” or “hell” rolling off my tongue. It’s so mollifying when I’m frustrated. I justify it because you can find both of those words in the scriptures, and also because I only damn inanimate pronouns (strictly “it”) and never personal pronouns (like “you” or “him”), as I mentioned in a post back in October.

But then, at the same time, I can be so horribly fickle. During a warm weather day a week or so ago, I was talking outside with some moms in the neighborhood about the rating change for The King’s Speech. Hubby and I had seen the R-rated version and absolutely loved it, F-word and all. Once in a while, even though I dislike the word in general, it can work well and even be strangely tasteful in a particular context. When my neighbor told me they’d subbed the F-word with the S-word to make it PG-13, I was appalled and declared that I wanted the artistic integrity of the original version preserved. (Yeah, they looked at me like I was nuts, which I am.)

Who decided which of those is worse? Okay, yes, if you think about the semantics, I suppose what F means is worse than what S means. But with just the sound of the word? Both have a harsh sound, that hard, plosive consonant ending (as opposed to the soft ending of “damn” or “hell”). If I had to pick, merely according to aesthetics, I’d choose F simply because the “uh” vowel sound isn’t quite so awful on my ears as the nails-on-a-chalkboard “sh” followed by “ih.”

And then there’s the accent to consider. I don’t think I’ve ever liked either word said in an American accent in a film or real life, but with an English or Irish accent? It can be almost lovely.

We went and saw The Swell Season when they came to Salt Lake shortly after their song “Falling Slowly” (in the movie Once) won an Oscar a few years ago, and Glen Hansard used the F word all over the place in his narratives between songs, but he explained that it was his Irish way of getting back at the British by speaking an effed-up version of their language. Hilarious! I laughed and enjoyed the whole concert, not finding the word grating at all.

Maybe that’s because it sounds like a completely different word with an accent. It gets that tidy “aw” sound, like “clock,” rather than the trashy “uh” like “puck.” But even “tidy” and “trashy” are arbitrary labels, made up by me as I’m writing this, based on no authority but my own fickle opinions.

Where am I going with all this? Just that I find it funny. I get a good laugh at my own idiosyncracies, so sometimes I like to display them so others can have a laugh too.

Anybody else this way? What taboo words are you fine with and what others do you shun? What exceptions do you make?

Leave a comment!

p.s. sorry about my failure to post on Friday. It’s been a busy few days with grading final papers to give back to students last night. My 1010 students have now flown the coop, and while I’m sad to see them go, I’m looking forward to a month off before summer classes start. I’m planning to post again this Friday and get back on schedule.

4 thoughts on “Kids’ Voices, Kings’ Speeches, Irish Accents, and the Damn Arbitrariness of Words

  1. Very thought provoking. I’m in the meaning camp as far as what words I find appropriate. To me that’s what makes them usable or shun-able. True some words just sound lousy–like luggage, which sounds like you just upchucked–but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to using it because it doesn’t mean anything offensive. F on the other hand has a very loaded meaning. And like you said, it’s all subjective. 🙂 Luggage might not sound like pukeage to you. He he.

    Thanks for always making me think about the whys behind my choices and for always doing it in such a fun way. 🙂


    1. Wow, I’d never thought about the word luggage. Now I will though! I’ll never be able to hear it again without thinking of pukeage.

      And normally I’m with you on meaning; these were a couple exceptions where I wanted to analyze why sound affected me more. They are probably the only two times I haven’t cringed at that loaded F bomb. Glad you liked the discussion. 😀


  2. I can’t think of any word I have an across the board grudge against since it’s the way that swear words are used that determine their malice. I’d bristle at strangers throwing f-bombs my way but when joking with friends, it comes up frequently with no consequence.

    I remember when I first realized that I didn’t hate the color pink anymore. It used to really bother me that stuff for girls was always colored pink so I actively disliked it. But as I grew into a visual artist, I recognized that pink was a fine color when used thoughtfully. There are even situations where it’s indispensable. When I had my epiphany, every color simultaneously became my favorite color.

    I guess all my rambling is trying to say: context is everything.


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