One of the pleasures of adulthood is the opportunity to shock our juniors. I found myself with an especially good opportunity years ago, when my daughter, Dorothy Jr., was five. My wife and kids had joined me for dinner at Dartmouth College’s Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, a giant log cabin where incoming freshmen were given a feast. Dorothy Jr. sat next to me on a long bench, and a freshman sat on her other side. The boy looked really hungry, and for good reason: he had spent two nights camping in the woods and eating badly cooked food as part of his college orientation. Starvation must have made him clumsy or greedy; when he tried to raise a large drumstick of barbecued chicken to his mouth the thing slipped from his hand and dropped onto his lap. Exclaiming the F-word, he picked the chicken off his sauce-covered pants and then glanced guiltily over at Dorothy Jr. My little blond, pigtailed girl was watching his face with interest.
“Oh,” the boy said to me. “Sorry.”
“That’s all right,” I said. “Dorothy, explain to the gentleman what you know about that word.”
“It was originally a term that meant plowing,” Dorothy Jr. said.
“Oh.” He held his chicken uncertainly.
“I know a lot of words,” she explained. “Would you like to hear about some others?” She listed several more four-letter words and offered to give the etymology of each one.
By now most of the table was staring at Dorothy Jr. The freshman looked across her at me. “Dude!” he laughed nervously.
Even better than shocking our juniors is using our own children to shock our juniors. “She’s interested in words,” I shrugged. “All kinds.”
I didn’t explain that Dorothy Jr.’s erudition was part of an experiment of mine to see whether knowledge of taboo words could erase their black magic and make them merely enjoyable. If my kids learned the story of individual “foul” words, would they seem so foul when it came time to use them? I had assured my skeptical wife that the words would probably lose their charm; without magic, why cuss? It’s the taboo that makes blue language work. But my secret hope was that my kids would grow up into imaginative employers of four-letter words.
And boy, did they. Not to brag or anything, but at twenty-six my daughter talks like a sailor—a very articulate sailor. I love that she appreciates “bad” words for what they can do to add spice or shock or express rage. Oh, she can be offended; she hates four-letter words when they’re used for no real purpose, or when they’re hurled at people simply to upset them. I like to think that she speaks a lighter shade of blue.
Want your kid to love language? Teach her to love all of it, including the juicy parts.