Funny little devils aren’t they, words?
On the surface, an innocuous cluster of letters. Groups of vowels, consonants and graphemes that rally together admirably in myriad formations to enable and support communication between human beings.
And yet. Words can be the most powerful tools at our disposal. They can hurt and wound, spread peace, love and happiness. They can kill and they can save lives.
Here’s an inspiring example of the power of words. What3words is a global grid of 57 trillion 3x3m squares. Each square has a 3-word address. I can tell you where I am anywhere in the world, without confusion or ambiguity, using 3 simple words. Imagine how important that for emergency services trying to coordinate rescue efforts in a disaster.
I’m writing this from Waterloo station in London. The famous Waterloo clock can be found at invent.muddy.look in case you’re ever in town and fancy sharing a couple of tins of gin on the train.
Words can also militarise intimidation and suffering. Those seemingly insignificant bundles of sounds can coordinate campaigns of fear and lead to history’s darkest days.
Donald Trump’s rhetoric is designed to heighten anxiety then soothe away the fear. Have a read of this fascinating analysis and then tell me the man’s not a danger to civilisation.
A school gate discussion with the Playground Patrol recently left me a little befuddled (did you see what I did there? It’s a mash-up of muddled and bemused. Great word). A 9-year-old boy had used the word ‘crap’ within earshot of the grown-ups and it’s fair to say a few of them were mildly scandalised.
I’m fairly liberal when it comes to language, as you’ll already know if you’ve read some of my previous posts on the wicked little Lairies. Generally, I’m of the opinion that words can only wield the power that we afford them, particularly when dealing with young children. If I gasp with horror when my 6-year-old refers to “that bloody cat” (no idea where she picked up that little gem…), she immediately clocks the power that ‘naughty’ word has to infuriate and annoy me. One-Nil to Maddy.
There is an infamous family story about the time when 3-year-old Maddy taught all the kids at pre-school the word ‘cock’ one lunchtime, having witnessed her father attempting to iron a shirt that morning. Sigh.
A discussion with the more offended members of Playground Patrol revealed that naughty words appear to have one thing in common: They are a sign of rudeness. “Did you hear that boy? He said crap! How rude!”
Let’s apply some context and take a deep breath people. Little Bertie (not his real name, I have no idea which terrible parent this one belonged to), had just cracked the wheel bit of one of his Heelys. Poor Bertie. I felt that he demonstrated considerable restraint screeching ‘CRAP!’ at the top of his voice.
He wasn’t making fun of anyone, showing off or name-calling. Just instinctively bellowing his frustration about breaking a prized possession.
The Playground Patrol did not share my sympathies. Never one to admit fault, I did the normal thing and asked Twitter. It being the source of all sensible opinion.
Aha. So it looks like us grown-ups harbour some double-standards around the naughty words conundrum. It’s OK for us to use them, just not our kids.
Well that’s crystal clear, I shall explain this to my child who has tunnel vision about fairness and making sure the last Smartie is cut into perfectly equal portions. I’m sure she’ll accept that without a quibble.
How far do you let your kids go with words, and is there one rule for them and another for us?
*I discovered that the word crap actually comes from an old English word for chaff (thanks @adamauckland). Therefore, I was right all along. Obviously.