When I was 5, I knew every word to the "Grease" soundtrack by heart. Nonetheless, when my dad made a cassette recording of my sister’s LP so we could listen to it in the car, he attempted to censor the bad language by pausing the tape in select points. The end result was clumsy at best. His poorly timed pauses only served to highlight the words, as in “you know that ain't [silence] shit, we'll be getting [silence] tit.”
Still, he made the effort.
Having children now, I’m becoming more aware of just how much profanity exists in music that I love. And not just where you’d expect it, like NWA or Rage Against the Machine, but from more innocuous, softer sounding bands, like The National. It’s getting more difficult to play music I want to hear at home.
Americans seem more sensitive to this than in other places in the world (thanks, Tipper Gore!) I was once in a video store with my father and sister in Switzerland. On the sound system was one of the raunchiest, most sexually descriptive R&B ballads I’d ever heard, and we all ignored it until later at dinner when my dad said, “Did you girls happen to notice that song? 'I want to lick your ass,' that sort of thing?”
Needless to say, I wanted to die.
We live in the Netherlands, where English language profanity seems to be less taboo than it is in the US. Not just in music, but everywhere. A few years ago, a clothing store in town had a window display including the message: “It’s F*cking Cold Outside!” Even my local café has caused my eyebrows to raise when their chalkboard outside—usually expressing a hopeful message like, “A cup of tea is a good friend”—bore the phrase “Do epic shit!”
Yesterday in Amsterdam, I saw a sign in a soup and salad lunch place that read “F*ck it! Eat salads!” This surprised me less for the profanity and more for the idea that “fuck it” is so rarely followed by “eat salads.”
In a language other than your own native one, swear words just seem more benign. I have dropped the odd Dutch swear word and, because I have no history or personal association with the words, it doesn't seem that bad. A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Warsaw examined what causes people to switch back and forth between languages depending on the circumstances. They found that people feel more emotionally connected to their native languages and are, therefore, more comfortable and willing to expresss things in another language that they wouldn't dream of saying in their own.
Sounds about right.
... I want my children to be more creative and precise with the language they use. Profanity can make you linguistically lazy.
English songs are not censored on the radio or in the supermarket, and no language is censored on television in the Netherlands. I feel like such a hypocrite thinking maybe it ought to be. I myself can use shocking language, particularly in my inner dialog. Properly placed I think a good swear word can be effective, funny. Sure, I laughed at the f-bomb/salad combo. I also thought it was a bit much.
It’s hard to explain to children why some words are “bad,” even when there are other words that carry the exact same meaning. But I’m not ready for my children to start knowing and incorporating these words. When my youngest says “truck,” it sounds exactly like "fuck," and it’s disturbing to hear it come out of her mouth.
More than that, being a writerly-editorly type, I want my children to be more creative and precise with the language they use. Profanity can make you linguistically lazy.
I am of the mind that the less big a deal you make of things to children, and the less you try to guard them from knowing the existence of things, the less tempting or interesting they will be. I’m a fan of my adoptive country’s attitude toward nudity, for example, and sex. I don’t mind walking by coffee shops (what they all the marijuana cafes) or even through my city’s small red light district if I must.
But with language, I’m going to do my best to help my children understand that some words are really not OK, even though their mother uses them at will when they are not listening.
Photographs: Tracy Brown Hamilton