Did That Three-Year-Old Just Say ‘Arse’?

Music: Genesis—Horizons

I must be a bad Catholic and a bad musician for saying this, but I kind of hate church when it goes on forever and the Mass is in Latin and the priest rambles unintelligently about a mumbled Gospel and the organ does all these twiddly bits that are impossible for the ordinary person to sing. So whenever I can (ie school holidays) I go to weekday Mass. Half nine till ten, no music, no sermon; just the [most] important parts. Just me and the nuns.

I went this morning. Arrived in good time, knelt down to pray. The morning sunlight made a fantasia of the coloured glass behind the altar, streaming in ribbons through the cold church. That and silence was all the music I needed.st joseph's

Enter the priest. Since our Canon had been flown across to hospital on the mainland for an emergency quadruple heart bypass, the elderly man swaying in was a temporary replacement. I’d never seen him before. When he began to speak, it was a relief to hear that he was English (our recent turnover of priests includes Kenyan, Polish, and Nigerian. All unintelligible. And even when we got lucky with Irish, we only discovered after that guy’s first sermon that he’d been talking about ‘death’ the whole time rather than ‘debt’). But unfortunately his scratchy bass didn’t resonate in our vast church, so, while I heard something about the ordination of seventeenth century knights, I can’t claim to know the facts.

The readings began. Good; they’d turned the lectern microphone on, if not the priest’s. At what point did I first detect it? A squealing, a yelling, an occasional bellowed “I WANT MAMMYYY!” from the porch behind me. It escalated to full-blown screaming during the second reading. And then the unfortunate female decided to bring her three small boys into the body of the church.

The first I saw was a boy of around five, marching down the centre aisle and apologising impudently to everyone sat at the end of a row. Behind him was a curly-haired urchin of around three, stomping very audibly and gurgling to himself, quite unaware of anybody else in the church straining to hear the priest drone out the Gospel. Or were we all distracted by that time? Finally the lady herself, staggering down the aisle with a precarious clutch on a boy who can’t’ve been more than two.

Gosh, those lungs! At the nearest screech, I heard the hearing aids of the gentleman behind me give a warning buzz.stjoseph's

After some altercation and the testing out of various pews, the quartet took up residence in the front row. The children would not sit. The children would not stop talking. Or giggling. Or screaming. The thin-haired woman, who I recognised as the uber-prudent, pious Latin teacher from the college, hissed at them, grabbed at them, chased them up and down the aisles and between the pews. She hadn’t enough hands. But I sure have never seen someone pass so many times in front of the altar during Mass. Or after, for that matter. Or bow so low every. single. time.

The priest continued. Everybody continued. I bit my lip to keep from laughing and, and if it weren’t for the woman near the back with the shrill, unmusical voice, would’ve forgotten to join in with half the responses. Nay, I wouldn’t’ve known they were being spoken. If I’d been wearing headphones, it would’ve been the most perfect morning entertainment anyone could’ve dreamed up.

I’ll take a moment to put this woman in context. She once scolded my mum for speaking a couple of polite words to a family friend in the confession queue. She also told our church band off for a single word in one of our worship songs—it was blasphemous, she said; it wasn’t Catholic. She dislikes us anyway because the stuff we play is modern and Anglican. The three boys she brought to church—and kept in church, when considerate carers would remove their screaming children from the building during worship, or stop their children from playing hide-and-seek all over the altars—were her grandchildren; which is odd, because she isn’t married. And, hey, “that’s not very Catholic”.

I’m afraid I have no sympathy for her. Perhaps I should. But I’m not going to judge. She made my morning (and gave me a blog post).

So, what else is there to say? It continued like this for another twenty minutes (very long time, it felt). The point of Mass was kind of lost on me. At the end the eldest boy wanted to light candles. Ten of them. And they cost thirty pence each. So lady gets out her lighter and, with a guilty look towards the priest, gives him the flame. And then, leaving the elder pair to light their own fires, runs across the entire church once again to chase the youngest boy.

Bet she makes a great grandmother. What we all would give to take such liberties with her! But nobody will dare mention how appalling the situation was. We are British; we let people judge themselves. And if they don’t, we can simply laugh at them.

Was my hearing blunted by the tinnitus of shrieking infants? Or did I really hear boy number two belt out a quick ‘arse!’ during communion?

And here, after nine hundred words, I find my topic.

Swearing is a part of everyday life for most us. Whether in pain, humour, stress management, attention and approval, or a substitute for physical aggression, we are very fond of our cuss words. And so what if we do cuss? So long as we pick our audience so as not to offend anyone, what’s the harm? In most cases swearing actually has a positive effect.

Yes, Basil again. I spent a whole morning downloading Fawlty Towers GIFs...

Yes, Basil again. I spent a whole morning downloading Fawlty Towers GIFs…

But a three-year-old saying ‘arse’ in church…either that will amuse you, or it will make you feel slightly uncomfortable.

A month or two ago I finished a book at Gatwick airport, and, with the prospect of an hour or so on a plane with nothing to do, I went to the bookshop. Later, my mother asked to see what I’d bought. She flicked through it. Her face changed. We fell out for days over Gone Girl, thanks to Gillian Flynn’s free use of F-bombs. My mum thought that any book so abounding with profanities would advocate and convey other, harmful ideas, that would be immensely unsuitable for a seventeen-year-old.

The thing is, she is naïve, and I have sheltered her. All my friends swear. All my friends drink. Our class read of Year 9 (age 13) featured unprotected teen sex, and not even as a plot point. It was gratuitous. Everything is gratuitous. I’ve encountered hundreds of times more swears in real life than in any book, and have been exposed to ‘ideas’ far more damaging. At least, my mum would think them damaging. I don’t want to upset her.

Ideas are addictive; they’ve influenced my psyche more than I like to admit. And as a young person with a growing brain and developing personality, I know these ideas will guide my decisions for the rest of my life. It’s a sickening thought, when I imagine the time of innocence (I can remember it no longer) and think of the person I might’ve been. That’s partly why my faith is so important to me—believing now, and living the belief, will set me up for life. It’s my one defence.

But let me go on about swearing.

It appeals to the animals in us. It stimulates us, it captures our attention. There’s no denying that. But does that make it okay?

It will make me fit in. It will make people like me. Yeah, sure, you’ll fit in. Just assume everybody else will swear no matter whether you do or not. I’m a bit of an idealist. And I do not swear. And I find that few people will swear when they’re talking to me—and if they do, they’ll apologise. As if they feel it’s wrong; they don’t want to corrupt my mind. That’s a super gratifying thing. I see a parallel in my dealings with alcohol: drink a little, and people will press you to drink more; own a no-alcohol policy, and they’ll respect it. It makes everything so much easier! You have a choice to get dragged into the vortex.

It makes me feel young and free! Ever popped a cuss at an incredibly inconvenient moment? Remember when you were caught by your parents for the first time? It’s stereotypical that teenagers are a little too free. We’re still getting used to the ways of society, and we’re pushing boundaries and craving the thrill of defying protocol. I wonder if we’re simply taking the lead from our elders. And if our stereotype gives us the go-ahead.

There’s no word with more than four letters that will express what I feel. Yep, there’s evidence to suggest swearing has a cathartic effect. This is a common point—especially among writers. Real people swear. How are our characters going to be believable if they don’t? I could say ‘effectiveness demeans with overuse’ or simply ‘lazy’, but really I have one answer to that: if you’re telling me there are no ways of communicating emotion, conveying character or setting scene other than sputtering fricatives all over the place, you need to get yourself some classes.

In response, we have to distinguish a writer from his characters. “I,” you say, “know that there are other means of expression…but my characters don’t.” Yes, yes, dumb your characters for your audience by all means. I’ve no problem with that. (Sarcasm, yes?)

In terms of ‘ideas’, I’m anti-swear and anti-sex in my YA. Probably, I admit, because of my innocence. But Gillian Flynn wasn’t pitching to seventeen-year-olds. And especially not expecting to have to get past their mothers. (I read GG anyway, by the by. And loved it.)

So who makes anti-cuss pacts? Religious nuts, like me. Conscientiousness, religiosity, sexual anxiety and agreeableness are negatively correlated with swearing persons. The last instance interests me particularly, but this post is getting long…

Take note: extroverts are more likely to swear. I’ve blogged before about extroversion in the Western society, and why it is popular and attractive. So it’s really not surprising that we imagine swearing will boost our self-esteem and others’ esteem of us. It’s been suggested that there’s a positive correlation between honesty and swearing. But perhaps that’s a result of the association with extraversion—which has nothing to do with honesty, when you think about it. But, then, children are pretty honest…

I swing back to the three-year-old in church. I’ve found an article claiming that children as young as two know how to swear, and have a working vocabulary of thirty to forty profanities by the time they turn double figures.

Maybe society has developed the suppression of swearing as a vehicle to teach children that their urges must be subordinate to etiquette. A by-effect is the conditioning to think some words are ‘bad’. (Like how a by-effect of the disciplinary measure of spanking is teaching them to deal with physical violence. But unlike, note, in that it teaches children that violence as a punishment is okay! And then there are other issues: for example, if spanking can be expected as a punishment for foul language, is there a corresponding expectation that the child will swear?) Can a word be intrinsically harmful? Only in the meaning attached to it. Like how casinos, despite their paranoia, depend on card-counters for their wellbeing*.

I guess it’s really all the stigma attached that makes swearing such a powerful tool. (And the sound, shape and movement of the words themselves…but that’s a whole ‘nother post’s worth.)

So what do you think? So what if a three-year-old said ‘arse’ in church?


*At any moment a casino could make a few changes to their games that would mean no skilled blackjack player could ever beat them. But if the public find out they can’t win—the vain, vain public!—nobody will play the games. So instead, casinos spend millions trying to detect card-counting practices (which aren’t illegal, I must add). I exaggerated: card-counters put casinos in a dilemma; their patronage (and the Hollywood notions attached to their success), rather than their existence, is what sustains the casinos. But that’s just my theory, and I’d love to debate it!


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