Warning: this article contains strong language.
Rumour has it that pint-sized yellow toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals – Minions – have been blurting out swear words at children.
Parents recently complained to the “family restaurant” that they can distinctly hear one of the Minions exclaiming “What the Fuck!”
In response to customer complaints, a McDonald’s representative insisted the toys are simply speaking Minionese, “a random combination of many languages and nonsense words and sounds”. The spokesperson apologised for:
any confusion or offence to those who may have interpreted the sounds as anything other than gibberish […] Any perceived similarities to actual English words are purely coincidental.
But what if McDonald’s were wrong, and swearing was indeed part of the Minionese vocabulary? Would parents be right to panic?
Well, not exactly.
Do swear words harm children?
According to an academic who has performed extensive research on swearing, psycholinguist Timothy Jay, children learn swear words from a very young age: around one or two. Jay’s studies of children and swearing, conducted in the United States between 1992 and 2013, have found that young children generally learn the form and content of swear words from their parents.
In the 2013 study, involving predominantly middle-class, Caucasian children aged between one and 12, Timothy Jay and Kristin Jay found that by the time the children entered school (around the age of five), they had a “fairly elaborate (42-word) taboo vocabulary”.
Yet the myth persists that children need “protection” from swear words outside the sanctuary of the home. There are even criminal laws predicated on this and other “folk-linguistic” theories on swearing.
In New South Wales, for example, it is a crime to use offensive language in, near, or within hearing from, a public place or school. Police commonly issue on-the-spot fines amounting to A$500 for the use of the words “fuck” or “cunt” in public.
‘Protecting’ children from swear words
Proponents of laws that censor or punish swear words have long advanced the rationale that children need “protection” from obscenities. When obscenity laws were introduced to the colonies in the mid-19th century, women and children – as beacons of purity – were considered most at risk of being polluted by the filth of swear words. Children exposed to swear words were thought to catch the habit of swearing in the same way one acquires a bad cold.
On the other hand, army camps, football matches, tennis courts, and male dressing rooms are considered places in which swearing is acceptable, or even to be expected.
These stereotypes about swearing are not unique to Australia. In the US, the use of the word “fuck” in front of children was considered at length by the US Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) in its 2004 Golden Globes decision.
The FCC had received multiple complaints about U2 singer Bono’s use of the phrase “This is really, really fucking brilliant” during a live broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globe awards ceremony. The FCC found that televising Bono’s use of the phrase “fucking brilliant” had violated broadcasting rules.
The FCC stated:
The “F-Word” is one of the most vulgar, graphic and explicit descriptions of sexual activity in the English language.
The Commissioners said that action was necessary to “safeguard the well-being of the nation’s children from the most objectionable, most offensive language”.
Myths about swearing
Alongside the idea that children can be corrupted by four-letter words, proscriptions against swearing rely on a number of “folk-linguistic” assumptions. Common theories about swearing include that:
swear words are inherently harmful or dirty
swearing is a sign of an “impoverished vocabulary”
people who swear are “lazy”
swearing is “common” or “not classy”
society must censor or punish swearing to prevent increasing use of four-letter words.
Each of these ideas has been discredited by linguists. The use of taboo words is a persistent language phenomena documented since Ancient Roman times. The correlation between the form and meaning of swear words such as “fuck” and “cunt” are arbitrary; they are not inherently sexual, harmful, or dirty.
A penchant for four-letter words is by no means indicative of an impoverished vocabulary. Just look at former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s creative use of swear words, a man noted for his extensive (albeit sometimes befuddling) vocabulary.
High taboo frequency has been positively correlated with other measures of verbal fluency, and swear words are relatively common among university students, a population that generally has “higher-than-average verbal abilities which selectively qualify them for admission”.
Swear words also have documented positive uses; they can be a non-violent way of venting frustration or anger, and can express humour. Swearing can be a means by which to enhance group solidarity and even increase pain tolerance.
In short, swearing, an “intense and succinct – and sometimes very directed – emotional expression,” is an indispensable part of human language.
Let’s stop panicking about children being exposed to the occasional expletive in a shopping centre, on television, or in a fast-food restaurant.
Children will eventually and inevitably hear these words (they probably already have). And frankly, there are much more harmful problems to be concerned about than swearing.
Punishing or censoring curse words has not, and will not, eradicate these words from our vocabulary. In fact punishment tends to have the opposite effect of reinforcing the “taboo” value of swear words and thus their perceived potency.
It’s time that we all had a more “adult” conversation about the uses and abuses of swear words, that acknowledges swearing as a ubiqiutous, persistent, complex and useful part of language.