The popular American sitcom, Modern Family once featured a swearing toddler in an episode. It was not a “fleeting expletive.” The show intentionally included a cursing two-year and bleeped out all swear words.
When the show premiered, the New York Times wrote about how accurately it reflected contemporary American families, and that the storylines seemed to be an accurate portrait of what many parents go through. With the profanity conundrum, parents of young children may have felt an uncanny sense of familiarity. Just as your three-year-old is learning to form complete sentences, to say words like almost, and generally to absorb all language around her, she will accidentally acquire some dirty words.
What’s a parent to do?
Even if the parent does not swear in front of the child, there are many other opportunities—around older siblings, or even aunts and uncles, and out in public—for children to learn foul language.
On Modern Family, the toddler’s dad cannot stop laughing at the situation. In real life, it is hard to explain to a child what “bad” words are. The child will inevitably ask, “Why?” And that’s a really hard question. Why are some words “bad” and other words “good”? In some cases we have euphemisms to code otherwise illicit topics. (Learn more about euphemisms here.)
A Jimmy Fallon segment, “Shootin’ the Bleep,” mocked the use of bleeps to disguise profanity. He highlighted the fact that when a word is bleeped on television, the vast majority of the audience knows what word is being censored. So what’s the point? Obviously the point is to preserve decorum despite what is actually there.
Swear words and censorship
Before the 1960s, most printers would not allow them in books (which led to coinages like fug in Norman Mailer’s 1948 The Naked and the Dead). The word profane literally meant “in front of the temple” in Latin (pro meaning “in front” and fanus meaning “temple”).
Good and bad words allow us to mark something as outside of the normal realm. In this way, profane words can be a very important tool of communication, if used sparingly. If you rarely swear, when you do, it is taken with intense gravity. The most honest reply to that innocent question—Why do we have bad words?—might be, “We just do.”