Bad Words, or the difference between Geek and Motherf&#@%r
A couple of months ago my then 5th grade daughter got into trouble with her school principal. She and some friends had invented a word-substitution system (the principal said a “language”, but then she’s not a linguist). In the system, fruit stood for common words (Pineapple was Hello, Coconut meant Yes and Orange meant No. They used vegetables for their names. My daughter took the name Broccoli, and her friends were Brussels sprout, Carrot, Green bean, and Spinach.
Some member of this group of 10 and 11 year-olds decided to invent rude words (truly an unusual thing for tweens to think of doing!). My daughter tells me that Mango meant “very bad word” while Banana meant” semi-bad word”. I learned about these words when my daughter got into trouble at school because, and here I quote the principal’s letter to me:
“she participated in and wrote down a language that was used to insult and hurt other students. The language included very foul swear words. My job is to provide a safe learning environment for all students. The students using the language during free time upset several students and brought them to tears.”
Now, right at this very minute I am participating in and writing down a language which includes some pretty foul swear words, and this language is used in playgrounds all over the English speaking world during free time in ways that upset fellow students and bring them to tears. My daughter has, herself, been brought to tears sometimes through foul swear words and sometimes through the use of the epithet “geek”, a term with which she has become familiar since moving to our new city and a new school.
I somehow managed to keep my daughter out of situations in which being intelligent was a mark of shame until we moved. And of course we moved so that I could take the really excellent tenure-track job in four-fields anthropology department that I had been hunting for quite some time. This may make me more sensitive than I might be to the issue of hurtful language.
A conversation with the school principal after the email exchange from which I cite above has led me to think more deeply, and professionally, about the nature of playground slurs, and in particular why I find “geek”, when used as a slur, more offensive than words which may commonly be viewed as quite foul and offensive.
The conversation I had with the principal was memorable. Among other interesting revelations, the principal informed me that Mango and Banana did not mean simply “very bad word” and “semi-bad word”. Rather, they were substitutes for specific English-language swear words. Banana meant, according to the principal, “sh*thead”, while Mango was the substitute for the time-honored “motherf%$&er”. She asked me several times during the course of our conversation “Don’t you mind that Elizabeth has invented a language with the word “motherf%$&er” in it?” to which I consistently replied “Did SHE, my daughter, use these words in a bullying fashion?” The response to both questions was, essentially, “No.” I noted that my daughter had herself been subjected to offensive language, being referred to as both a “geek” and a “bitch”. I went on to say that I really did not feel that there was anything wrong with knowing that a language contained profanity, or with writing down that profanity (although I realize that in this blog entry I have been careful to write the “really bad word’ and the “semi-bad word” in such a way as to mark their generally accepted offensive quality, while even I feel more comfortable writing the terms my daughter has been called without recourse to symbols).
Why, then, do I retain the persistent sense that I’d really rather someone called my daughter a “mother%$&r” than a “geek”? (And I don’t mean to say that I would welcome either epithet, only that I have them at different positions on a scale.) And, perhaps even more interesting, why did the school principal pale at the thought of kids saying Mango Banana, asserting that this was BECAUSE they were saying motherfucker shithead? Would she have been OK with the idea that Mango meant geek?
One of the things that drew me to Linguistic Anthropology and keeps me fascinated is that my chosen field often explores the interface between language and power, where power is understood as the ability to influence the behavior and attitudes of others without applying actual physical force. (I draw on the work of Michel Foucault to get to this idea of power.)
All this has me thinking about what bad words are for – and in particular the role they play in our own culture as markers of adult status. Vocabulary is explicitly marked, as in the ubiquitous warning of “adult language”, generally associated with the equally dire “adult content”. We seem to have decided as a society (although certainly with exceptions) that over the top violence – giant mechanical creatures smashing one another and their human constructed surroundings, vampires and werewolves battling for the favors of teen princesses, aliens and monster fighting for the Earth – is part of the “natural” content of childhood, while certain words ought never to come from the mouths of these violent creatures.
Meantime, we also seem to be steadily demonizing and trivializing intelligence, so that “geek” can be hurled at someone in the most “PC” context and defending oneself against accusations of intellectual prowess seem to have become a requirement to attain and retain political office.
What are we, society in the guise of my daughter’s principal, so afraid of? Why is bad language, even the knowledge of bad language, a challenge to the order of the school? Because it is a challenge to the order of the school, or the perception of such a challenge, that I think must lie at the base of the principal’s over-reaction to the fruit language. The problem of the fruit language is its ineluctable evidence of childish ability to manipulate and lay claim to language which in the school is prohibited even to the adults. No one may use “adult” language in the space in which children are taught not to be adults but to be children appropriately. And yet I suspect that in another school the fruit language might have simply raised an eyebrow or two. It is not sufficient, then, to simply say that “bad words” challenge the existing order and had to be quashed thoroughly.
The disorderly universe presented by “bad words”, which was raised again in an essay by Linton Weeks posted on the NPR site even as I was finishing this essay, becomes more frightening at points where language ideologies (and other ideologies) are in contact. I suspect that my daughter’s principal was more concerned because the children in our school (which qualifies for Title I federal funding, a program designed to “improve the academic achievement of the disadvantaged”) often come from backgrounds the principal in question cannot quite imagine. This has led her, for example, to announce in markedly rapid, upper Midwestern English that the Spanish, Punjabi and Vietnamese interpreters who had been requested are present and anyone who wants to avail themselves of these services should make this known, an announcement which is invariably followed by silence which she bulldozes right through, shrugging, wondering why folks indicated on their paperwork that they would want an interpreter. Children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who proudly announced to my daughter’s 4th grade teacher on the first day of school that they “hate school” also create significant challenges for educators, and the school’s reputation for bullying in the playground must be taken into account. But why, then, is Mango Banana so serious while Geek is not?
“Geek” does not create a crisis, I think, because it does not belong to any of this dangerous terrain, but resides safely in the mainstream anti-intellectualism about which no one seems all that afraid.
The problem of “bad words” is not simply one of resistance or rebellion. Instead, “bad words” index, or point out, the rubbing together of ideological differences which cannot, in the presence of such words, be ignored. So I do understand the fear which drove the principal to her unreasonable response, just as I understand the closely related to the distress expressed by Weeks in his essay. But I still think that Mango Banana is a useful phrase, and I am proud that my daughter, like me, is a geek.