I realized the other day, when my son asked me that question, that the problem with swearing is not the actual words we use.
My grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and when visiting my grandparents, I was not allowed to say “darn”.
As in, “Darn it!”
Why? Well, as my Grandma Powell explained it, “Darn is another way of saying ‘damn’, and that’s a sin.”
“Okay, fine… Dang it!”
“That’s another way to say a different bad word. Sinful!”
I didn’t get what the big deal was, but that summer I made up my own word: “Flurp.”
Flurp can be used to replace any swear word at all, and since Grandma didn’t know what it meant, she couldn’t exactly prove that saying it was a sin.
“It stinks like flurp!”
“Get the flurp outta here!”
“That totally flurps.”
Anyway, I’m all grown up now, and trying to set a good example for my kids. But kids have this extra special way of riling their parents up to the point where a swear word or two might fit the mood. (At least mine do, anyway.)
So not really swearing, exactly… on occasion I’ve tossed in an “effing”. As in, “Get in bed right now or I’m going to effin’ lose it!”
And on one of these recent occasions, my son replied, “Dada… what does ‘effin’ mean?”
And I explained that effing is a word I say instead of another word which is a bad word. And it dawned on me in that moment that, truthfully, I wouldn’t want my son walking around saying “effing” this or “effing” that either.
Right then I realized it’s not any particular combination of sounds we’re using, it is the expression of anger itself that we find offensive. It shows that you’re flustered and angry and lashing out in an inappropriate way. It demonstrates a loss of control, willingness to break a taboo.
(Not to mention the whole “sin” thing.)
I’m pretty sure I blushed when my son asked me that. I’m going to resurrect “flurp” and see how that goes.