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Swearing 101

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What’s in a word? That depends. If it’s the “wrong” word, it could cost you. Apparently, bad language has become so commonplace in the high schools in Hartford, Connecticut, that drastic steps are being taken. If you’re a student and you allow a “swear word” to leave your mouth and a teacher or administrator hears it, you’ll be out 103 bucks. Quite an expensive word. “The fines, issued by police officers in the schools on a case-by-case basis, must be paid or students must appear in court as they would for a speeding ticket.”[1]

Now, let’s suppose for a moment that this top-down restraint actually works and students clean up their language in the school hallways and classrooms. What will prevent them from swearing once they are off of school property? It doesn’t really matter, does it? They are no longer the responsibility of the school. They become someone else’s problem. This exercise is yet another pointless lesson in situational ethics that is being taught to our teenage public-school populace. Like Pavlovian dogs, they learn to modify their behavior to meet a particular societal demand, yet the opportunity for true education floats farther and farther away.

The article asks a pointed question, but never bothers answering it: “What, exactly, is a swear word? And is it fair to punish students who simply mimic the phrases they hear from their favorite sitcom stars, their parents, and sometimes, even their teachers?” Is the point of the school’s policy simply an attempt to limit the students’ vocabulary, or is it trying to teach a real lesson about words? In this case it appears to be the former, but this could be an opportunity to teach a real lesson to the students. Ephesians 4:29 says: “Let no corrupt speech proceed out of your mouth, but such as is good for edifying as the need may be, that it may give grace to them that hear." The word for "corrupt" means “rotten…primarily of vegetable and animal substances, expresses what is of poor quality, unfit for use, putrid.”[2] The interesting thing about most “swear words” is that they are substitutes for “vegetable” or “animal substances,” and they are never able to edify or encourage. Since our students have nothing but low-grade role models whose vocabulary consists of 15 words, their behavior and speech are soon indiscernible from the movie, TV, rock or sports stars they idolize. Set your expectations low enough, and you’ll always meet your goal.

The other way of dealing with this issue is exemplified at the end of the CSMonitor article.

While some schools may look to Hartford to toughen their own policies against a tide of profanity in the media, others have adapted to the modern coarsening of linguistic mores. At Boca Raton high school in Florida, principal Geoff McKee says that some words, in certain contexts, carried much harsher connotations years ago and no longer require out-of-school suspensions. They revamped their policy accordingly.

In other words, redefine school policy in accord with where the culture is. Since lots of kids are getting out-of-school suspensions because of their language, modify the policy so that language is no longer an issue.

Dr. McKee says that two members of Congress wrote his superintendent, claiming he was "dropping the ball" in preparing the next generation. But he disagrees. The plan, he explains, is to improve the learning environment, and cut down on unnecessary suspensions. "Really good kids were saying stupid things," he says, "without representing a threat."

Of course, Dr. McKee is begging the question. Representing a threat to what? Why is representing a threat bad? Why are some things stupid? How do we define “really good kids?” This is post-modernism at its worst. Dr. McKee is in fact doing more damage to these students by re-defining standards. I’m not sure how you “improve the learning environment” by ignoring vulgar and profane speech in that same environment. Then again, I don’t have a Ph.D. in Education, so I can’t be expected to understand the “ways of the wizards.” But Linda Lewis-White understands education. She teaches it at Eastern Michigan University. “She teaches her students to educate children on the etymology of obscenities as a preventive measure. ‘Once you demystify a word and bring it out in the open, it loses its power.’”[3] I would be willing to gamble my lunch that the students who have been through Linda Lewis-White’s etymology sessions are no less profane in their speech than any other college or high-school student that hasn’t. The origin of the word isn’t the problem, it’s peer-pressure and cultural expectations. How can our college and high-school instructors be expected to make a dent in music and entertainment influences when their responses are fines, re-defining standards and word etymology? The education elite in this country are quickly becoming the best reason for home or private schooling. Let’s encourage them to keep it up…

. Sara Miller Llana, “Can a $103 fine stop students from swearing?” Christian Science Monitor (December 7, 2005). Online at:
[2]. W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 49.
. Llana, Christian Science Monitor (December 7, 2005).


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