Codeswitching

The f-word is wearing out. It may still have the power to shock some people, but in general, it seems to be moving into the mainstream, following in the muddy footsteps of ‘damn’ and ‘shit,’ which have become almost acceptable (except in Judge Judy’s courtroom).

There is no longer an ‘f-bomb’ – it’s becoming just another filler word like… well, ‘like.’ Or ‘um’ or ‘you know.’ These are verbal tics; we don’t realize how often we’re saying them until students start keeping track and reporting back to us.

But unlike “like,” f*ck is versatile, providing verbal, adjectival, and nominal uses. There is rarely a sentence that can’t be augmented by one f*cking profanity. I am convinced that this is a big part of its popularity.

I’m not morally opposed to profanity; I just can’t use it. My mother would be disappointed in me. I know she can’t hear me, but whenever I use those words, my ears start to turn red.

When I was about eight or nine, I had my ears boxed for using the word “gee” once in front of her. “It’s just the same as saying ‘Jesus,’” she said. “It’s taking the name of the Lord in vain.”

“Gee” = “Jesus”? It hadn’t occurred to me. Or that “Gosh” might be a way to say “God,” or “heck” the same thing as “hell.”

I teach in a high school. Part of my job is to expose students to standard, formal English. In many ways, it’s like teaching people to drive in Kazakhstan. There are lines painted on the roads, traffic signals and signs, but nobody pays any attention to them. Once the majority begin to ignore traffic rules, it’s hard to convince them that it matters which side of the road you drive on. In fact, it may even be seen as advantageous to ignore the rules, since everyone else does. Nobody wants to get run over.

Rules create a dual mentality: most people understand why the rule is there and get angry when other people break it, but don’t consider that it also applies to them.

There is no ‘rule’ about profanity at my school – not as far as I know. It’s just common courtesy, a recognition that we are here for something that deserves respect – education. Most students understand this.

But I hear these words all day. Kids in my classes say that they forget, it’s a habit, they didn’t know they were saying it, didn’t know that it was wrong.

“Would you say that word in front of your grandmother?” I ask them.

The answer always used to be, “No, sir.” At the very least, they might say, “Sorry, my bad.”

Now, increasingly, the answer is, “Sure, why not?” or even, “My grandma says that word all the time.”

Okay, we’re all products of our environment. The reason I can’t say those words is the same reason they say them constantly.

Here’s the paradox: the fastest way to get my students’ attention is to say ‘damn’ or ‘hell.’ Teachers aren’t supposed to say those words. Students say them constantly, without thought, but for me to say them is wrong. It’s the dual standard: they can say it, I can’t.

How do you enforce a rule that everyone ignores?

Society changes, and rules do too. I often wonder if social mores evolve in one direction only, from strict to loose. Or is there a natural correction that occurs when we reach a point of such looseness that we’re out of control?

Where can we go from here?

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