Language use — and in particular, some children’s use of certain language — tends to cause all sorts of ruffled feathers in the ‘right thinking’ sensibilities of many adults. In the doctrines stuck to by those adults (educationalists, some parents, maybe, etc.) when children are around, hearing swearing sets off instant reprimand reflexes. Yet, when the children are gone and the adults are in the company of each other, fuck . . .
If there are words that aren’t understood, I agree with the principle of a certain playwork writer who advocates the buying of a dictionary. So I want to know what certain words mean, or use to mean . . . so I go to the dictionary. In the spirit of another certain playwork writer, who advocates ‘proper deskwork’ research (i.e. those things we used to have, back in the day: books), I pulled out my two huge 1979 edition Oxford English Dictionary (OED) volumes. Now, what do these words I hear mean, or what did they once mean?
First though, a preamble: I come to this subject area to write on because it’s been rumbling around in the back of my mind for the best part of the week. Bits and pieces of conversations, reading of others’ writing, reflecting on the things I heard on the playground in London recently all comes to the typing fingertips.
There was a time, I admit, when I also engaged my instant reprimand reflex on hearing children saying certain things that didn’t fit the ‘moral compass’ I’d had instilled into me. It was something I’d absorbed from my colleagues at the time, and from the set-up of the places I was working in. I wasn’t advanced enough in myself to question the doctrine, so I just went along with it.
I remember back a good few years (it’s funny now I think of it from this playwork perspective) when I was in the staff toilet, washing my hands. Next door, in their own toilet room, I could hear two younger boys, about five years old, talking with each other. They were the sweetest little things, ordinarily. You can guess what’s coming! I suppose they didn’t think they could be overheard. Out came a stream of various ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and so forth. My instant reaction/reflex was wrong: it was a ‘I hope I didn’t hear what I just heard’ comment (albeit playful in itself).
Really, though, what does it matter? Like I say, we swear, and children swear and will continue to swear when they become adults. They’re only words. Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we have to pay attention to the intent of those words: there’s a difference between saying: ‘Fuck off, I don’t believe you!’ and ‘Fuck off’. We’re adults and we should be able to read this stuff here without the emotional baggage; hence I write it like this.
Appreciating the intent of a set of words, there are two arguments for ignoring them that immediately spring to mind. Firstly, we all grow up in a certain culture (by which I mean our family and the environment in which we and our family live). That culture is a complex organism and our use of language is embedded within it. So we accept that we have different cultural backgrounds. Secondly, even if the intent is aggressive, we are emotional animals and emotions will out. I don’t like being told to fuck off, just as you may well not like it, but it’s how I choose to deal with it — rather than trying to make the other person not say it — that’s important and more productive.
Playworkers don’t live in a moral vacuum but we also try not to enforce our own views on the children. This is a point that many adults can’t fathom: it is, perhaps, because of that ‘reprimand reflex’, which they blindly believe in. I don’t know why.
So, to the proper deskwork research! It’s a little disappointing that the OED (or my copy of it, at least) doesn’t make reference to ‘fuck’ or any other such words that are guaranteed to offend many adults. A quick search engine quest does throw up a variety of ideas on the source of the meaning of the word; however, as with many things on the great and vast interweb, you take your chances there in believing any of it. So, to the books, which despite not giving a fuck about fuck, do give a fuck about ‘arse’, ‘bastard’, ‘piss’, ‘shit/shite’ and ‘twat’ (which I find somewhat amusing in itself!) A choice selection of cuts therefore, for your amusement, curiosity, and delectation:
Arse: the fundament, buttocks, posterior, or rump of an animal; heavy arse: a lazy fellow; to hang the arse: to hold back, be reluctant or tardy; arse upwards: in good luck; arsed: having an arse; arseling: backwards.
1530: What up, heavy arse, cannest thou nat aryse.
1711 Swift: Do you think I have nothing else to do but to mend and repair after your Arse? [i.e. behind you, in your rear]
1768 Ross: Then Lindy to stand up began to try; but he fell arselins back.
Bastard: one begotten and born out of wedlock; a sweet kind of Spanish wine; a kind of cloth; a kind of war-vessel, a variety of galley; a large sail used in the Mediterranean when there is little wind; a particular size of paper; an impure coarse brown sugar, made from the refuse sugar of previous boilings; of abnormal shape or irregular size.
1677 Moxon: The Bastard-tooth’d file is to take out of your work the deep cuts.
1695: Covered with an Arch of Bastard Marble.
1859 Darwin: The ‘bastard-wing’ [set of three or four quill-like feathers placed at a small joint in the middle of a bird’s wing] may safely be considered as a rudimentary digit.
Piss: probably onomatopoeic; to discharge urine.
c. 1386 Chaucer: How Xantippa caste pisse up-on his heed.
1600: [an] intolerable stench of pisse and goates dung.
Shit/shite/shote: excrement from the bowels, dung; to void as excrement.
c.1400 Lanfranc’s Cirurg: If he may not schite oones a day, helpe him perto . . .
1484 Caxton: The wulf shote thyres by the waye . . .
Twat: erroneously used by Browning under the impression that it denoted some part of a nun’s attire.
1660 Browning: They talk’t of his having a Cardinalls Hat, They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.
The last of these being, of course, my favourite of the found OED quotations! Context is as important as intent when using words, and modern usage has shifted older versions into newer versions; however, the point here is that words good enough for Darwin and Chaucer and Swift, etc., can be good enough in playful context too. What was that rhyme I used to sing in playing games with other children when I was maybe seven or eight or nine years old . . .?
Ip-dip dog shit, fucking bastard, silly git, O-U-T spells out, so out you must go. Or something like that. I didn’t know what the words meant: they just rhymed and scanned well. I just knew that the rhyme was the rhyme for finding who was out. It was no big deal.