At first, the concept of ‘bad words’ seemed cut-and-dried. Curse words bad, other words good. And I knew that my propensity to curse might some day be problematic. I don’t exactly swear like a sailor, but I have been known to drop the occasional f-bomb. More likely, a d-bomb or a sh-bomb. And I simply refuse to give up ‘bloody hell’ as a nearly perfect curse for all occasions. However, as predicted, my potty-mouth has come back to bite me in the ass – er, tucus. One day when he was about two, Tristan asked me in the most polite, gentle voice to “Open the damn door, please, mummy.” Oops!
That same year around Halloween there was this singing ghost in Canadian Tire that Tristan loved, and it sang that old disco song by Wild Cherry: “Lay down that boogie and play that funky music till you die…” We sang that song over and over again for months, except every time we’d sing it, I’d change the last word so it would be “play that funky music till you cry.” (I know, I know, but I was still a newbie parent then. I was naïve and full of embarrassing idealism. Thank god that’s gone now.)
So ‘die’ was our first stealth bad word, and from there we discovered a universe of seemingly innocuous words that lead a secret double life. Soon ‘hate’ arrived, and shortly thereafter ‘stupid’ came to call. Each time, I tried to explain to Tristan (and now Simon, who is, if anything, even further ahead on the linguistic curve than his brother was at two) that some words are simply not nice. You don’t ‘hate’ something; you do not like it. You absolutely never call another person ‘stupid’. (Except when they are, and then you only do it behind their back. But I'll wait 'till he's in school for that part of the lesson.) That boy did not try to ‘kill’ you; he simply tried to take your Thomas train away.
And then, just when you think you’re getting through to him, he tosses you the curve ball. You’re talking to your spouse about houseplants and lamenting that you’ve ‘killed’ every one in the house, and your son, whom you didn’t even know was listening, pipes up and chides you for using a bad word and it takes a full minute of replaying the conversation in your head before you can figure out what he’s on about.
So you launch into a discussion about context, and meaning, and intention. And around the second minute, you see his gaze wandering and you realize he hasn’t processed a single thing you’ve said, and you wonder why they only listen when they’re not supposed to.
And you realize that the whole ‘words’ thing is a slippery slope, and you’re on the way down fast. When the issue of name-calling comes up, as it inevitably does with a four-year old, you immediately react when he calls his brother ‘stupid head’ and tell him name-calling is not acceptable. You try to teach him that words have power, and in using words you have responsibilities. You suggest that calling somebody a ‘potato-head’ is a much better alternative, but when you actually hear him calling his brother a potato-head, you change your tune and issue a no-name-calling edict instead, and you realize that not only have you rather hypocritically just contradicted yourself, but that you’ve just talked yourself into a corner as well.
And the most disheartening part is you realize that this is only the first of many, many times you will do this. You realize that you have debated the philosophy of semantics with a preschooler, and lost. And you realize you have changed from the first to second person half way through your post and are simply too lazy to go back and correct it.
Words. Phft! They're nothing but trouble.