Call me old fashioned, but when I hear an elementary student say, “Holy crap!” “What the frick?” or “Shut your frigging mouth!” I bristle. It isn’t just the words’ proximity to the real deal that makes me cringe or that I have particularly delicate sensibilities, it’s the way these expressions are used – with oblivious flippancy, bordering on acceptability – that offends me. Language is a dynamic, ever-evolving medium of human communication and, to those of us who grew up revering the power of words (to both good and bad ends), this trend suggests their devolution.      

Profanity, like other forms of expression, is open to interpretation. Language considered explicit by some is nothing more than colorful to others. Aside from the handful of words we all agree are obscene, the criterion for offensive speech is largely in the ear of the beholder. Even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose primary role is to regulate broadcast content, is vague and broad when defining profanity. Much like assessing pornography, classifying offensive speech is an elusive, subjective process, best described by Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter in 1964 when he wrote simply, “I know it when I see it.” (Or in this case, when we hear it.)

For decades, parents and schools have uniformly prohibited kids from using profanity, with consequences for infractions ranging anywhere from a mouth full of soap to time-outs to in-school suspension. That is for traditional curse words, the basics, the tried-and-true staples of any self-respecting verbal outburst. Kids nowadays know better than to blurt these out and instead favor a more subdued lexicon of foul language. Words with less offensive connotations like hell or damn, or words with euphemistic origins like crap, frigging, freaking, or shyte have skyrocketed in use. Spend time in any elementary school and you’ll hear this for yourself.

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As adults, we are reluctant to outright categorize these alternative words as bad, partly because we use them ourselves and technically they’re not on The Official Naughty List, mostly because we realize sanctioning words is a slippery slope. If fricking and crap are off-limits, what about crud, snap, dang, shoot, or shucks? Where does one draw the line? If we censor too much, we nullify the purpose for censoring, so we let the knock-off swear words slide. But that logic begs the questions: Are they actually less offensive? Is the impact any different?

To find out, I conducted an informal survey asking dozens of parents and teachers to share their opinions about kids using inappropriate language. It seems the overall effect of expletives has as much to do with semantics and syntax as it does with context and intent. In other words, it’s not just how and what you say, it’s who you’re saying it to and why.

We tend to view our cultural society in bifurcating halves – the young and the old – when gauging our listening audience, and we adjust our language accordingly. If a third grader is on the playground with only other third graders in earshot, his “I ran so flipping fast!” takes on a milder hue than if he said the same thing sitting at his desk in the classroom. If an eighth grader is talking to a kindergartener, she will (hopefully) refrain from, “Oh crap!” in favor of something less vulgar. As one parent astutely noted, kids swear around other kids, adults swear around other adults, and each group applies its own filters. It’s when the generations mix and the language overlaps that it becomes misconstrued.

In my research, educators were more troubled than parents by the increase in semi-profanity, which stands to reason given the more formal setting, or context, in which they encounter it. Parents, though, felt responsible for their children’s word choice and considered it a direct reflection on their own linguistic habits. Both groups found swearing most offensive when it was directed at others in a deliberate attempt to shock or defame (i.e. intent).

The verdict on the word “crap” is that, while it may be selectively acceptable at home, it is considered mild profanity in public. As for the euphemistic curses, the consensus is that the Fs (frigging, freaking, etc.) are too close for comfort, whereas the Ss (shoot, snap, scat) are fine in any situation.

When it comes to words, the manner or motive behind their delivery makes no difference if the words themselves are harsh and hostile. Words speak louder than tone, express more than what they represent, and leave a lasting impression. Words dictate to the world what kind of person you are. All frigging day long.