Salty Like a Sailor

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The first time I swore, I was 11 years old. My best friend convinced me I was a goody-two-shoes and I should debase the way I spoke. She encouraged me to practice at her house when no one else was home. Everyone needs friends like this 🙂 It was surprisingly difficult. I ended up venting in my journal, calling people preposterous names on the page. But in real life? No chance.

Despite my dad having been an actual sailor for a while, he never swore, and neither did my mom. I also grew up in a religious household where exclaiming things like “Jesus Christ!” was unacceptable. I had a lot of friends who weren’t allowed to say “Oh my God” so I never got in that habit. I can’t remember the first time I heard the F Word. It was probably on a late-night, uncensored CBC movie. It didn’t make much of an impact because people I knew didn’t speak that way – it was a Hollywood thing.

I was convinced I had outgrown the children’s section of the library when I was 11, too. I started my journey into the adult section by reading shelves of Agatha Christies. Then I made my way into the Adult Content. Needless to say, my salty language vocabulary expanded immensely. I just didn’t feel the need to use it. I was the go-to person for my friends when they wanted to know what an outrageous word meant!

Over the next few years, more and more of the kids at school used trashy language as much as possible in the school yard and whenever they were together. They would stop it in the classroom or at home. How many times did you actually want to get in trouble? At community gatherings, adults would spend a lot of time complaining about the Youth of Today and Their Bad Language. The cursing was rarely directed against the adults. It was more of a “youth culture” thing.

You would think that since I grew up on the east coast, we’d all swear like longshoremen. But as an adult, I have always worked in libraries where the staff are (of course) a highly literate bunch. We can have high-minded conversations any day of the week and express ourselves eloquently without the use of profanity. In fact, we have to because there are always customers around.

Why swear when you can just cast a Look? (Photo of Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess by

Why swear when you can just cast a Look? (Photo of Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess from

Being a fan of right good language usage (!), the most important value is being expressive. If I want to show anger or contempt, I will use many techniques from my Bag of Tricks before I resort to swearing:

  • Minimizing contact
  • Being icily polite
  • Casting a withering look
  • Rehearsing a speech in my mind
  • Telling you the facts of the situation
  • Explaining how I feel  Nope, I don’t do this!
  • About newsmakers: ranting about their decisions, use of power, etc.

I am much more likely to use colourful language if I am flooded with relief. For example, if I am driving and another car nearly hits me in traffic, I might say, “Fuck, that was close!” whether or not anyone is in the car with me.

As a parent, I went through the usual stages of:

  • deciding what words to use for body parts and elimination
  • trying to minimize toilet language like “poo poo head” (a losing battle)
  • clamping down on insults, such as calling someone else “stupid”
  • educating about offensive terms (such as national or ethnic origin, religious beliefs, etc.)
  • learning what offends particular people we know
  • talking about political correctness
  • laughing about Shakespearean insults and the like (the Brian Jacques Redwall books were great for this!)

By the time my kid, Link, was 16, my rule was that we could swear, but not at people. So one of us would say, “That concert was fucking amazing!” or even “I’m so fucking mad!” but not “She’s a fucking bitch!” or “Fuck off!”

I bet you guessed that since we had permission to speak this way, we rarely felt a need to. Link, now 20, swears more often than I do, but always appropriately to the context. Parenting success!

There is one circumstance in which I think it’s inexcusable not to swear. If you are quoting or mimicking someone from a book or a movie, you need to speak or write as they do.

“I am not interested in emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye.” – Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (this lovely term revived in honour of the 3rd Bridget Jones book, published this week!)

How about you? How expressive is your language?


  1. My language has sadly deteriorated over the years. Growing up, I never listened to my parents swear at home. I remember some of my skiing friends in the 8th grade swearing, and I didn’t actually know what the words meant. The first time I remember my parents swearing I was in my mid to late teens. My mother was talking about a politician, and my dad was cursing at someone who cut us off on the highway next to a steep drop off. My swearing increases when I’m working in the “shop” or “field”, but I keep it pretty under wraps when I’m in the office. I remember one colleague being utterly shocked finding out I actually did swear after working together for 6 months or so. For the most part I try to use my vocabulary rather than swearing. I’ve had a number of people comment that I use “big words” a lot, so I guess it must be working, lol.

  2. Fiona

    Dar, do you find swearing is different these days with kids in the Library? When we were kids, almost everyone knew not to swear in public. In the school library I work in, swearing is just endemic. Teens these days (lol – I sound so old!) seem to swear continually.

    Like you, as a child I never, ever swore. We weren’t allowed to blaspheme and I never did that, either. But my Dad (a bricklayer) and many people around us in the building industry in my childhood swore colourfully when under duress. I now do the same…never in the office, almost never socially, almost never in writing…but I do swear a lot with my twin sister or when under duress (eg. arguments with the husband.)

    Do you think there are differences by country, too? Australians in certain contexts do punctuate conversations with regular swearing…I adjust my language a lot to fit the context.

    • Yep, the kids at the library swear constantly, even the 8 year olds, and they don’t seem to adjust their behaviour when adults are around. It must be tough for teachers to deal with that in the classroom! I also find that more of the bad language is directed at people. I would say that most people under 40 in Canada swear a lot without thinking about it, as well as most people who work in outdoor trades. I always think people should adjust their language to the situation, but most of them insist on “being themselves” and not changing!

  3. Gosh, well, I grew up with parents for whom swearing was a way of life! In fact, there’s an old family story that when I was about 2 years old I was in my crib sort of babbling to myself, and I was heard saying, “I want a cookie, I want a cookie, God dammit, I want a cookie!” I fear many years of working in the music business did not help the situation much, and I really have to remind myself not to drop too many f-bombs in situations where I’m interacting with the general public. I’m sure I offend people sometimes – especially people with kids, but it’s just really hard to train myself out of the habit since swearing is just part of my regular vocabulary.

  4. Like Fiona and Cassie, I swear in context – such as when I’m working the field. The BF hates it when I use the F word. I love that you defined it with Link as a non personal thing, I think that’s a great division, and one I can’t imagine thinking of! It’s interesting to notice who will and won’t swear around me at work, but as I explain, after almost 5 years, I’ve heard it all! I will seldom write swear words, I think… And I can easily remove them in contexts, such as in the office, church stuff, and even at home. But I do have a friend who is adamant the f word is perfect – noun, verb, adjective, and it should be used liberally! That being said, he doesn’t use it in fancy restaurants where he likes to eat!

    • I do think that there are situations when only a swear word will do. If the context demands it, great! It’s funny that despite all the “bad language” around, there are still situations when it has a lot of impact. Words are powerful!

  5. What an interesting post! My language is much improved over the years. Where I grew up everyone swore (kids, parents, even teachers) but since meeting the hubby (who was a sailor and surprisingly never swears AT ALL) I rarely swear (unless it’s in private and usually at my computer).

  6. I really want to put your sign up in my group of disengaged teenagers classroom. We have a constant battle against the F word and worse. I really think they cannot help it. They actually asked me if I was very religious because they just couldn’t understand why I was asking them not to use those words in the classroom. I’m trying to teach them to be able to speak without major swearing, so they can help it when they need to. Slowly, slowly, it’s improving.

    • I find the same thing in the library where I work. They really can’t see anything wrong with it. And they really don’t agree with the concept that you should change your behaviour depending on who you’re with. I think they can’t envision being in a more formal setting, like a workplace, where others may actually care about such things. They don’t see themselves as ever being part of a different world than the one they’re in now.

  7. I cuss quite a bit. To me they’re just words. Yes, society has deemed them inappropriate for now, but I don’t agree for the most part. Sometimes it just feels better to call someone an asshole vs. a not very nice person, or even a jerk.

    • I see your point – but as someone who loves words, I don’t think they’re just words – we choose the ones we use based on familiarity or impact. Saying someone is an asshole has more impact than saying someone isn’t nice, so that is making a choice to be noticed. I’m not for or against it, but I think it makes a difference to the way we’re perceived by others – whether we care or not.

  8. I’m Australian. I just have to swear.

    But seriously now, I do swear quite a bit. Fuck is such a fricative sound; it feels so explosive and cathatric coming out. I don’t get offended with swearing. I do get offended with insulting language, but you do not need to swear to insult. Calling someone a cow or a dog is more offensive to me even though they are not obscene terms, than saying, “That was fucking awesome.”

    Though there are situations where I don’t like to hear swearing. Eg I don’t think comedians are funny just because they swear a lot. Give me witty humour. And when the swearer is trying too hard to be shocking or cool, eg in reality and panel TV shows.

    My favourite use of swearing in a movie? The opening of Four Weddings and a Funeral. Who hasn’t woken late for an important engagement and just gone, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.”? The first 10 words to this movie are just this.

  9. I remember one summer day when I was about 12, I was sitting outside the house with my friend Billy, from whom I learned most of the dirty words I know. We were playing and talking for a long time, When I went inside, my mother, who had apparently been listening to us all along, confronted me. ‘I never want to hear you use that word again!’ she said. Having no idea which word she meant, I hardly spoke around her for the next week; though I did learn to be more circumspect in language usage.

    • Parents and other adults probably always think that their kids use new swear words intentionally, but in reality, they often don’t know what they mean, and they are just copying others! Of course as the parent they can still insist the words not be used – at least around them!

  10. What a great topic! I grew up with two parents who cursed depending on the context: at home – sure, at my grandmother’s house – never, in the car – okay, etc. When I was very young, I copied them once or twice and was never told not to say the words – just that they were not meant to be said in public and to not direct them at anyone. Maybe because I could say the words at certain times, they never had the forbidden appeal that they held for a lot of my friends, who all started cursing around middle school and seemed to rely on swearing. Even now, I rarely curse unless I’m alone or just with my husband. I do love using other words to express my frustration though – and bonus points if the word is amusing to say, like balderdash. 🙂

    • Exactly! I would much rather say that someone is “slovenly” or a “curmudgeon” than to curse at them. Being inclined to politeness, I would probably not say those words to their faces either!

  11. Lisa

    I admit, I have a potty mouth. My husband, the mechanic, often asks, ‘who is the mechanic here and who is the biologist’ because I swear so much! I read an article recently stating that people who swear a lot have an inability to communicate effectively. That got me thinking, but I don’t agree in my case, because I know I can communicate well. However, maybe I am a frustrated and angry person inside lol! Maybe I like the shock I generate since, based on my looks, people don’t expect it from me. I had a co-worker say that when he heard me swear he knew we’d get along and that I knew my ‘stuff’ – I know, odd, but he was an amazing field biologist, so I took it as a compliment.

    I do agree that swearing should fit the context or situation. I really try not to swear in general public or around kids. I try to curb my language to the situation e.g.if I notice the other person never swears. It still shocks me when I hear swearing in a public area like the library, grocery store etc. i suppose this is a hold over from my childhood.

    Interesting topic!

    • It sounds like you have some insight into your own behaviour! I think you have two good reasons there – one for the shock value, and one for the ability to fit in with others who also swear! When you come right down to it, most of swearing expresses surprise or frustration, is directed at someone in anger, or is just used for emphasis like “fucking amazing.” So maybe you are just faced with those situations a lot!

      • Lisa

        Well, I do tend to be an impatient person and swear quite a bit at inanimate objects that are not cooperating with me (I know, the operator is always to blame). I also worked for many years in the environmental field with the feds; this government in the last number of years there has given me lots to swear at and about!

  12. I was a goody two shoes as well as a kid, so never really started swearing until I was at uni. Now I tend to swear when something goes wrong. I’ve also had problems with flies getting into my house, so have been swearing at them, but since I live alone, no one hears that except the flies (and my turtle).

    If I have kids, I will need to clean my language up a bit, but I don’t think it would be too hard. It annoys me more when people use the wrong “your” or “their”!

  13. If I could master the look like Maggie Smith does, I’d probably swear a lot less.

    Last week my oldest asked her dad at dinner, “Dad, guess what my friend named her new hamster? It’s a name you say a lot.” And my youngest piped up, “Jesus Christ?”. Oops. Parenting fail. 🙂

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