I solemnly swear…

“Ohhhh Fuuuudddggeeee”

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

An iconic line from an iconic movie that people of certain generations can absolutely relate to.

While the parents of Gen X’ers didn’t necessarily wash our mouths out with soap for dropping curse words, they were not ones to let the verboten words that George Carlin relished in (and a handful of others) slide past. 

Swear jars were prevalent growing up. And even if we didn’t’ have them ourselves, they were an iconic part of our generation. We all remember that scene in Moving Day where Richard Pryor pulls out his wallet and just starts shoving bills in the swear jar in anticipation of an impending plethora of curse words.

Parents of the newer generations are a little more lenient. They are abandoning swear jars and even celebrating cuss words. One of my favorite viral videos from about ten years ago was of a mom who bought her kid a cake the first time her kid said, “F YOU MOM!” to her. 

The kid opened the cake box and in fancy scripted icing was, “F You Too!” Both the kid, the mom, and I had a chuckle. That’s my kind of parenting.

The Bad Word Struggle is Real

Full disclosure: I swear freely in front of my kid and she swears freely in front of us. Why? Because there are certain things kids want to do to be more adult and swearing is the lesser of all those evils.

Plus, by letting her drop F bombs in casual conversation with us, we take the power of the word down a notch and she is less likely to use it with hate. She’s never screamed “F YOU MOM” in a teenage huff or said it to anyone in a menacing, mean, or meaningful way. 

And it was a mostly harmless way to teach her that she’s been given a power by being allowed to use these words and with great power comes great responsibility, right Peter Parker? Certain words were okay for our house, but not okay outside our house and if she abuses this power, she’ll lose it. We’ll pull out the soap.

And she grew up respectful of this. I’ve never been called by a teacher for inappropriate language and she’s very careful around other parents and younger children. 

However, during COVID, she did some online meetings with mixed-age groups of kids. During one, my daughter got some bad news and said, “mother trucker” instead of what we all know she’d wanted to say. But even though she was good about using a substitution, one of the moms complained to me about it because her intent was the same as if she had used a curse word.

And this is where I put the soap away and pull out the soapbox.

Intense Intent

Okay, yes, when you say ‘mother trucker’ instead of the alternative, your intent is the same. But that is the case with every single substitution for swear words we have. That’s exactly WHY we have substitutions – so you can express that intent while avoiding the soap.

Here’s the thing: saying “bad” words makes you feel good. It sparks that little part of your brain that gives you a drop of adrenaline. If you stub your toe and say a cuss word, it has been proven that it actually hurts LESS than if you stub your toe and just say “ouch.”

But if you happen to stub your toe in front of, say, a nun, you are not allowed to feel better with swear words and still get into heaven. 

And stubbing your toe in front of nuns must have been a very common dilemma because at some point in history, some random person decided it was okay to say, “heck” when you mean “hell.” Or “shoot” when you mean the other “S” word.

If we are judging on intent, then we should ban the substitutions as well. “Screw you” carries the same intent as “F you” if said spitefully enough but substituting “screw” keeps you out of heck.

For that matter, just ask a southerner what “Bless your heart” actually means half the time.

Plus, the substitutions can help younger kids learn to control their language and use it appropriately. When I say we let my kid swear, I should clarify she was probably 12 when we gave her a green light on the potty mouth. Prior to that, she thought the name of the game BS was for “bologna sandwiches.”

Context of your Text

But there are still “BAD” bad words. Words where the baggage and history they carry give them a context that is unforgivable. And I appreciate that as we evolve as a society, we are still canceling old words because we’ve woken up to the fact that they are demeaning and cruel.

The R word is off-limits now and it was never a “bad” word when I was growing up.

But the “bad” words versus the “BAD” words can be confusing. Especially given all the different views on how to handle the disparaging context of some words. Do we cancel them all or own them?

My gay boyfriend says, “When people are being jerks, I used to call them “d—s” or “a—holes,” but here’s the thing: gay men LIKE d—s and a—holes. So, it shouldn’t be an insult, it should be a compliment. Let’s just turn all the bad words around into good things.”

And for women, what do we do about the B word? Historically, it’s been used to demean women. In response, some say we never use the B word, that we ban it from our lexicon. Others say we take it back, flip it around, and reinvent it to mean strong-willed, powerful women. Make it into a positive like my gay boyfriend wants to do.

 Still others say the context is what matters – if man is using the word in a demeaning way, then it’s BAD, but if a woman is using it in an empowering way, it’s GOOD.

No wonder the kids are confused. Hel—uh, I mean HECK, even I’m confused.

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About Lily Winters

A full-time copywriter, Lilly Winters lives outside Washington, D.C. in a house full of animals—which include her husband and teenager. Under a different name, she’s written a book of short stories, a Young Adult novel, and was most recently published in Gravity Dancers. Lilly Winters isn’t posting her real picture because it’s possible she is currently wanted by the Mexican drug cartel. It’s also possible she watches too much Ozark.

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