Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A Lack of Vocabulary

I hear and I see profanity. Often. (That was a functional fragment, not a grammatical error.) I've been teaching for twenty nine years, and I spent twenty five of those years teaching middle school students. But I did not often see or hear profanity in my middle school classroom. Why? Because I helped my students to understand that using profanity is most often the result of a lack of adequate vocabulary to express oneself. During normal daily conversation, you should have the ability to tell others what's on your mind without having to resort to "cussing." How did I help them understand that? Well, first of all, I had to get their attention.

(I think I'll change tenses now.)

It's easy to get the attention of a middle schooler; all you have to do is say, "I really need to talk to you about using dirty words." All talking stops, ears perk up, and all eyes bore holes through me. Mission accomplished! Now is the time to talk with these impressionable young minds about why people like to cuss. Oh, we don't repeat dirty words, nor do we curse during the class discussion. We just talk about why bad words come out.

"For instance, there are times when a 'dirty word' might slip out during physical or emotional distress, like stumping your toe when you run into a chair in the dark on the way to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of water."

A student asks me if I ever cussed when I stumped my toe. I say, "Yes." I didn't want to admit that, but you have to be "real" with middle school students. I tell them that I have been practicing, very successfully I might say, to replace profanity with more acceptable words. Instead of saying a "cuss word" I say, "DIRTY WORD!" (I got that idea from a preacher's daughter.)

Well, that sounds ridiculous to eighth graders... laughable, in fact. When the laughter dies down, I can hear, "dirty word!" being whispered and muttered all over the classroom. sigh... But I still have their attention.

Now, I have to do or say something to convince my students to use acceptable language instead of profanity. It's now time to analyze and reason with them. That's really not so difficult to do with middle school students. They really do want someone to talk to them as if they have a working brain. Here's a paraphrase of some of the things I have said to my students:

"If you do resort to cussing, it is probably out of habit or out of a feeling of inadequacy. I'll talk about the feelings of inadequacy in a minute. Let's talk about habits. Habits can be broken, but it takes deliberate effort...and an alternate behavior should replace the bad habit." (Now you see why saying, "DIRTY WORD!" proved to be successful for me.) We can all hope that your tendency to curse is out of habit, because it is the easier of the two reasons to "fix." Why shouldn't you use profanity? After all, you hear profanity all around you. Why shouldn't you use it, too? Why? Well, perhaps you wouldn't like your grandmother to hear those words coming from your mouth. Do you "cuss" your grandma? No? Why? Because you respect her? Why do you not respect YOURSELF? Why do you continue to have a 'habit' that is controlling you? Are you admitting that you can't break the habit?"

(Dear readers: This goes on and on, but you get the idea....)

"Now let's talk about the second reason for "cussing." You may notice that your classmates who use profanity often are the same folks who like to draw attention to themselves with bad behavior in the classroom. This is because of feelings of inadequacy. People who have such feelings like to draw our attention to their bad behavior and bad language because it diverts our attention from problems they want to hide from us, perhaps even from themselves. People who feel inferior must resort to extreme behavior to feel in control, and one thing that such people have in common is a filthy mouth. So, if you resort to using profanity in my classroom, I will wonder, and now the rest of the class will, too, why you feel inferior to the rest of us."

Well, by now, students are wanting NOT to use profanity because if they do say bad words during the course of normal conversation, they are admitting they are not able to break a bad habit OR they are admitting they have feelings of inadequacy.

Now the students are willing to learn to express themselves without using profanity. We go on about our business, learning the intricacies of the English language and how better to communicate with others. We practice expressing emotions such as anger and frustration with language that is acceptable in the classroom. We learn new words, and we practice using those new words in writing and in conversation. We create pictures in the minds of our readers and listeners. We no longer suffer from a lack of vocabulary. We've become smarter. We smile more. At least we do in the classroom of The Big Sister (who's 5'4").

Now, if only I could convince my husband, a former sailor who's now in law enforcement, of the need to refrain from using cuss words. I hear and I see profanity. Often.



  1. I've never really cuss words much. It's not so much that I disapprove or anything, it's that there are times they are not acceptable, and I'm simply not quick enough to adapt, so the only solution is to just not start.

    Duh works as a fairly adequate substitute for most words too.

  2. Nice! I replaced the cuss words years ago with "OH BOTHER" - mainly because my son loved Eeyore as an infant and it was the best I could do at the time. Years later, people think it's funny but the day I stepped barefoot on a pruned rosebush and the only thing that came out of my mouth was OH BOTHER - I knew victory was at hand.

  3. Moving day...

    Today we are moving. I mean, we’ve been moving stuff to our new house for days now, but today is the day of the rented truck, and tonight will be our first night to sleep there. So, whatever troubles you’re having today, whatever little an...

  4. lolol...I love the "dirty word" solution! Unfortunately I've had trouble in this area. You see I used to sing in a band, my brother was also in the navy and well my father owned his own business, so yeah, a lot of swearing to rub off on me. I think there's probably not a "dirty word" I haven't heard. Having said that though, I'm trying to do better.

  5. I'll have to remember the "dirty word" solution. I admit I do have a problem with cussing under certain circumstances. I can fortunately control it when my kids are around...barring a few times when my oldest son would immediately chastise me for using the "d" word, as he called it. I also have a hard time controlling it when dragonlady is around, she's a bad influence on me & she can cuss like a "dirty word" sailor. :)

  6. Basil,

    We were both in the military. I noticed that no one thought I was serious when I didn't curse as I was instructing other soldiers what to do. It was almost like dropping an f-bomb as an adjective let them know it was important. I've cleaned up my language alot since then, but my Army buddies who still serve sound like Eddie Murphy stand up.

  7. Hi, visited your site via Georgia Bloggers! I love this solution to the "dirty word" problem..now if I can just remember to use it!

  8. Hmm I'd never swear outloud in a conversation. Makes me feel dumb. I don't get offended If others do as long as they aren't droping the F bomd 5 times a sentence. But bloggin is a different story (excludin the F bomb). Could account for the fact I am far more open as an anonymous writer than a real life speaker. I falsly see comedy in dirty words sometimes if I'm on a rant and call something 'damned' or refer to someone complaing as B-ing. Weird. Doesn't make it right I knoooooow. But odd non the less.

  9. What Cussing Shows...

    The Big Sister (who is 5’4”) had a nice post over at Basil Blog yesterday about what cussing / swearing really tells us about a person. TBS has been teaching middle schoolers for some 25 years and she recounts how she deals with / educated middle sch...

  10. Oh romping bison. What a load of haystacks that is. Cussing means you're inadequate my art collection. There are simply times when only a good "stray mice in the laundry chute!" will do.

  11. Oh, what fun I am having! I had no idea that my little post would evoke such feeling in basil's readers and would bring so many comments. I am beginning to visit the blogs of those who have commented, and that is opening up new avenues of thought for me. I appreciate all of the comments.

  12. I'll be the first to admit... I have a foul mouth. I like to think that I can control it.. but just ask Basil, who sat in front of me at baseball games for two seasons, I'm not very good at censoring myself.

    That said, your post made me think back to my high school typing class (Yes, that's "typing." With actual typewriters. I've been told that students now take "keyboarding" if anything at all).

    Back then, of course, not every home had a computer. In fact, most homes didn't even have a typewriter, which made practicing the skill of keyboarding quite difficult. On the rare occasion when I had to turn in a "typed" assignment, my dad took me to his office after work to access an ancient word processor.

    At any rate, while some kids were pretty adept at typing, the majority of our class sounded like a clinic for Tourette's Syndrome sufferers: "Click, click, click, F-BOMB, click, click, click, S-WORD!"

    Our teacher, fortunately, understood, and while we were certainly discouraged from openly swearing in class, we also weren't punished for it. He'd been teaching typing for a long time, and understood that students managing about 10 words a minute were prone to fits of frustration.

    One of the girls in our class (One of the better typists) had a variety of funny replacements for curse words. My favorite was "FUDGEBUNNIES!"

    Even though it's been nearly 20 years since I graduated from high school, I still say "Fudgebunnies" on occasion.

  13. [...] After the Big Sister's (who's 5'4") two posts about profanity I felt compelled to share and seeing how basil slipped away and forgot to take my keys, well I'll just use his blog as a confessional. [...]


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