Teachers at Work

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Refined Swearing: Taboo Words in the English Language Classroom

In his best-selling grammar book for teachers of English as a foreign language, Basic English Usage (1984), Michael Swan famously used the term "taboo words" to discuss words that we tend to skirt around in the classroom, and this term entered the EFL teachers lexicon from that point on. Of course, it dealt mainly with profanities and swear words that the socially careful teacher might want to avoid, and gave a little advice on how to deal with the inevitable emergence of colorful language thrown as stones by taunting adolescents to probe the defenses.

Some might see Swan's comments as comforting wisdom, while others will see them as unnecessarily prissy and overprotective, and without doubt we all find our own way of dealing with words and topics that we feel uncomfortable with in the classroom. In his later Practical English Usage (2004), Swan also includes a section on "taboo words" and reduces his "advice" to giving stars to words denoting their strength, or ability to cause upset — one star is unlikely to upset too many people, while three or four stars may be very shocking. He then gives the caveat "if it is used in the wrong situation" and it is this point precisely that, to my mind, causes the biggest dilemma.

After all, we would be naïve in the extreme if we thought that our students weren't going to pick up a rich and varied bouquet of these choice words — indeed they will undoubtedly be engaged in an active quest for such vocabulary, applying energies that we would never see used for more mundane lexical activities. However, they are far less likely to get the social situation, where these words could be used appropriately, correct. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear those with a low-level acquisition of English using swear words quite vociferously in the most inappropriate situations, frequently escalating an event out of proportion.

Witness: a boy carries a drink to his table at a cafe, accidently colliding with two English speaking tourists; a little drink is spilled on both sides which releases a string of obscenities, in English for the benefit of the tourists, from the boy. The words he uses are out of proportion to the event and, what is more significant, out of proportion to the tone of voice he uses. His tone of voice is more like, "Oops, close call that. Could have been worse." The words he used were more like a declaration of war. It is quite probable that he did not know the appropriate words for the occasion, and the only ones he did know were inappropriate but that wasn't going to stop him using them — because he didn't know just how inappropriate they were.

Of course, the way that a native speaker hears some words is completely different from a non-native speaker. The long held associations of the native speaker with some strong words and phrases, which no doubt have a family history of use, abuse, prohibition, caution or censure, are not shared by the non-native speaker for whom they are probably no more than a code for upping the ante, with no real sense of degree. Simply hearing some of Swan's three- and four-starred words (actually he only has one four starred word: which do you think it is?) can make some native speakers feel physically attacked.

The question thus being posited to the teacher of English as a foreign language is how to deal with this phenomenon as, realistically, it can't be ignored. We know that a many of our students will pick up these words from a variety of sources, and possibly have a choice number of swear words in English at their disposal before they can articulate simple sentences or questions, so don't we teachers have a responsibility to make sure that they don't use these words in totally inappropriate circumstances?

One way of dealing with this that some teachers use is to make it clear that no situation is appropriate, but is that really the case?  Aren't there situations when mild expletives are, in fact, appropriate and, perhaps, expected?  The need to express surprise or mild shock or annoyance is common enough for our students to be equipped to deal with this appropriately so that "Oh damn," for example, is used instead of "Oh f---."  The student would need to be taught that the former is unlikely to upset anyone, though it will register the feelings of the speaker adequately, while the latter could well cause offence. And you can't teach that without tackling the issue head on.

There are two points I want to make about this. The first is that once the teacher has dealt with this issue in the class, then this fact automatically defuses the potential for students wanting to test the teacher's reaction by lobbing in some swear words they have picked up. The second relates to the need to import the situational context into the classroom for the degree of strength of some words to be understood. My favorite way of doing this is through short stories, and one of the best I know for dealing effectively with the power of the swear word is called "Not Dead Yet, Lily?" by the Scottish author (and Edinburgh Makar, or poet laureate), Ron Butlin. In it, Lily — an elderly widow living in a polite, well-mannered suburb of Edinburgh — becomes increasingly frustrated with her neighbours and with the dull monotony of life around her. Her breakthrough moment comes one morning, when she finds unexpected relief:

Now for breakfast, she'd thought, breakfast, bloody breakfast. As she pulled on her dressing-gown she'd started muttering to herself: "Bloody breakfast, bloody, bloody, bloody, bloody breakfast."
It felt good, stimulating. Like a vigorous marching tune in her head. There she stood in front of the mirror: a kindly-looking, white-haired, elderly woman, frail but dignified — those were no doubt the sorts of words her neighbours used when talking about her — and all the time behind the benevolent smile she was hammering out full-force, "bloody, bloody, bloody, bloody breakfast." Then she'd grinned to herself — and she'd not done that in months.

This moment of liberation leads to experiments with stronger words until finally she reaches the F-word which, at the very end of the tale, she uses to devastating effect. For the purposes of teaching it gives an almost perfect example of the fact that swearing is a graded business and that different levels will achieve different effects, and all this through the incongruous lips of an oh-so-proper grey-haired Lily. Besides, if nothing else, it probably makes it less likely that the rebellious fifteen year old will throw around the F-word carelessly if he or she thinks that an elderly Scottish widow uses the word.

Ron Butlin's story "Not Dead Yet, Lily?" appears in his collection of short stories, No More Angels, published by Serpent's Tale. Teaching Materials based on this story are available from http://www.wordpowered.org/InWords/lily.html

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Fitch O'Connell has been a teacher for longer than he cares to remember. He works as a materials writer and teacher trainer. In 2003 he set up the acclaimed BritLit project for the British Council in Portugal, and has worked since then to help establish a new place for literature in English language teaching. He also contributes to the WordPowered website, which brings together teachers of English by using short stories, poetry and film. He now works as a freelance consultant and is based in Europe. Click here to read more articles by Fitch O'Connell.