At this writing, my son, Ollie, is seven-and-a-half years wise, so of course he’s begun to swear, albeit on mostly innocuous terms. Trust me, he hasn’t learned to swear from his mom or dad. We’re careful to set a good example around the kids. And we’re not big swearers ourselves. True, every time Jenny heard George W. Bush talk about the Iraq War on the radio she muttered, “Pig-fucker,” but that was before we had children, and given recent political events in America, she’s unexpectedly nostalgic, historically and linguistically revisionist.
Ollie has picked up profanity from friends, of course. He has no phone yet and doesn’t text, so OMG isn’t in his spoken lexicon. He can’t depend on initialism for euphemism. He started to interject Oh, my god in the usual places — frustration with his parents’ decisions, moments of surprise or wonder, frustration with intractable Legos or intermittent Netflix, well, mostly frustration, I guess. We sympathize and we know, too, that frustration often requires verbal expression and relief. Nevertheless, we discourage Oh, my god and recommend Oh, my gosh, instead.
We live in Bloomington, Indiana. Bloomington is a pin-prick of blue in an otherwise bright red state packed full of conservative Christians who would be offended by Oh, my god, or even god rather than God. Hoosiers — Indianans, so called — like President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence — a Hoosier himself and former governor of the state — really chafe at political correctness, so called. But I’m a political liberal, so naturally, I’m all about political correctness, and I think it’s wrong to offend the religious sensitivities of our neighbors. Thus, Oh, my gosh. The irony is lost on most Hoosiers.
Ollie and I have explored alternatives to Oh, my gosh, which, you must admit, lacks both salt and whimsy. I’ve proposed extensions like Oh, my Godzilla and Oh, my Godot. Ollie, unfamiliar with Japanese cinema and Beckett, resists them, but I argue they’re just fun to say, regardless of allusion. I want him to be a master engineer with his Legos; I’d like him to be an expressive and creative wordsmith, too. Or, we could reduce the god to gee. Oh, gee — how about Oh, gee whillikers? That’s a euphemism worth reviving.
Like the rest of us who speak in the linguistic market, Ollie grasps profanity naturally and euphemisms socially. As Pierre Bourdieu puts it in translation, Ollie is already practicing the “sustained attention to forms and formalities which defines the ‘stylization of life.’” He hasn’t yet developed that “relation with the market” — Bourdieu again — “which can only be acquired through prolonged and precocious familiarity.” Oh, he’s precocious enough, but he’s still working on the prolonged part.
My favorite current Ollieism is scrap, which comes in different sizes, like Oh, scrap and Scrap, I can’t find [insert name of missing piece] from my new Ninjago Legos. We may see it as a prevarication on crap, and it performs some crappy functions, for sure. But I’ve never heard Ollie say crap and correct himself. I have heard him say snap, though, with basically the same intonation — Oh, snap and Snap, I forgot where I put the [insert name of missing piece] from my new Ninjago Legos. He’s aware that these are safe expletives, but he may not be aware that they’re euphemisms, that something darker and adult lies underneath. Scrap may just be another slightly more satisfyingly expletive way of saying snap. According to Ollie, though, scrap is no innovation — he picked it up from that reckless television show, Transformers Prime.
Along with scrap — which is, frankly, kind of cute — he’s begun using What the hell? and freakin’ since the end of the school year. It’s the lore and language of schoolchildren, a little something on the cusp of second grade to carry him through the summer. The freakin’ freaks us most, because he’s not just saying That’s freakin’ cool or No freakin’ way. No, he’s saying things like What the freak?! which is a long way from Oh, my gosh on the euphemism scale. There’s the underlying profanity. There’s the phonetics. There’s the fact — apparently — that What the hell? and What the freak? — while parallel — signify differently.
It’s this nuanced pragmatics of euphemism that drives us — Jenny and me, grandparents, older folks at our (Episcopal) church who don’t want to hear the sentence, What the freak Jesus? — crazy, because once he’s conscious of the difference between What the hell? and What the freak? he’ll be stylizing his life in a way reflecting that relation with the market. We want him to succeed in the market, but why now? Why not when he’s eight-and-a-half, or maybe twenty-two, when prolonged familiarity will guide him to honor his father and mother?
In the meantime, I’ve suggested freezing as an alternative to freaking and this strategy has worked pretty well. At least in our hearing, it dampens use of freak and freaking because Ollie knows it’s utterly implausible, an embarrassment to say. It’s a good bet that out of our hearing What the freak?! is alive and well and contributing to in-group solidarity among Ollie and his friends.
Recently, we were playing crazy eights, Ollie and I. The game wasn’t turning out quite the way he wanted — I had caught him with a heavy hand — and he needed to swear about it. Jenny and I — because we’re responsible, politically correct parents — had been pushing What the hell? towards What the heck? Ollie knew what we expected, but sometimes the impetus to profanity catches up with and overcomes Ollie or Anyollie. “What the hell … k!” he cried, hoping that this new euphemism — hellk — would save the situation. His chin stayed fixed. His eyes rolled upwards for judgment. I smiled. The smile said, “Works for me.” He relaxed. We resumed the game, comfortably if willfully mindless of the challenges ahead.
P.S. I’m a fair and balanced parent, so it seems important to point out that I’ve written about my five-year-old daughter’s profanity and euphemism, as well as Ollie’s, here.