Retorts: Are “bad” words a good idea?

WHEN IS IT OK – or effective – to use profane language?

“Why are you guys farkling around? Ah, zork! Quit being such a honyocker!”

This is how I swear. Pretty lame, eh?

Well, maybe, maybe not. I wasn’t always quite so delicate in my speech, and there are a few times when my old habits reassert themselves.

This topic of “blue” speaking is on my mind because at an area school some parents have complained on social media about the things that athletic coaches say, during games and during practices.

You can probably hazard a fairly accurate guess as to which words are employed. A lot of them end with a consonant, like a K or a T. As someone who has covered his share of athletic events – mostly at the high school level – I can testify that the use of what I like to call “barroom talk” is no new phenomenon.

Which raises a lot of questions. Should a coach – who, after all, is kind of a teacher with a whistle – use profanity around kids? A classroom teacher would likely be chastised for such language, yet such verbs and nouns are commonplace on the sidelines, in the dugout and on the bench.

On the other hand, isn’t that the lingua franca of sports, harsh words said loudly, in an attempt to focus attention during crucial moments? Would a 15-year-old boy (or girl, for that matter) feel the same sense of urgency if the coach said, “Say, Erin (or Aaron) could you please remember to look at the scoreboard clock next time when you’re in a similar situation? I’d appreciate it.”

On the other other hand – or glove – does a string of barnyard imprecations hurled into the face of a teenager playing in front of his mom and dad and grandfolks represent the highest standard of modern education?

Let’s look at a few truths, or at least likelihoods. By the time most athletes reach high school, they have already heard and often repeat those words. In a jesting manner, they call each other by certain insulting names and revel in the camaraderie of forbidden speech. It makes them feel grown-up, despite the acne and the changing voices.

So, does this justify coaches using the same words? And, just as importantly, does such salty speech do any good, or enough good to matter?
I used to say “bad words.” I had a pretty wide vocabulary of them, and delivered them enthusiastically. Then two things happened. First, I began teaching college courses, and found that the frequent use of profanity quickly lost its impact. What stands out is the unique or infrequent.

The second thing is I got married to a wonderful lady who reformed me, even as I reformed her. It’s at the point where I can’t even say certain words when I am miles away from her. I’ve been conditioned.

So I invented “swear” words which had a quasi-harsh tone but which, strictly speaking, were not profane. They had roughly the same effect as the traditional Anglo-Saxon terms, and were much more memorable. I still hear from former students who remember “farkle” probably a lot better than anything else I taught them.

When in certain dire circumstances I needed to really get their attention, I might have let a hard-consonant word out. That would quickly drop the curtain of stunned silence onto the classroom or student newspaper office. Such nouns are like a very hot pepper; one is usually enough and is often quite effective in getting the desired reaction.

However, some language clearly goes too far. A coach or teacher who uses racially offensive terms, heaps abuse based on references to sexual orientation, handicap, race or gender is clearly out-of-line. A smart football player knows which side of the line of scrimmage he belongs on, and so should coaches – parents, too.

If you want your child to live in a world without any salty language, steer him or her away from sports. But if you want to be a good coach – or teacher – who respects the self-worth of a bunch of kids not old enough to shave, stay away from too much of the hard stuff, and I don’t mean liquor in this instance.

The pain of an ill-considered comment can last a lot longer than a bruise or even a broken bone. Let’s all remember that during the game and long after the final buzzer has sounded.

Jim Tortolano once wrote a novel without a single “bad” word. It didn’t sell well.





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