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Growing by Bleeps and Bounds

It’s an incongruous sound. Like a parrot’s squawk coming out of a puppy’s mouth. Or a teddy bear that mutters “Life is pain” when you press its tummy. But there it is: My two-year-old’s face — eyes the size and shape of quarters, lips like red licorice — cussing like a trucker.

Through some terrible mutation of natural law, a four-letter word has become my young son’s all-time favorite utterance. And not just a four-letter word. The four-letter word. The one usually reserved for sailors, inmates, and the occasional Vice President.

He used it at the park while, um, asking another child to kindly vacate his fort. He used it at home to inform some guests — with dramatic emphasis — that his favorite color is blue. And then, dear god, he used it at preschool.

He was sitting at the lunch table with friends when he let it rip. Finding the sound delightful, his buddies started shouting it, too. Their teacher explained that it was unacceptable language, and then called their parents to alert them to the special new phrase that — thanks to my just-out-of-diapers hooligan — might find its way to their otherwise G-rated dinner table that night.

Please, I asked the teacher, my cheeks hot with shame. Please tell me this wasn’t the first time you’ve heard a child say this in your 8,000 years of teaching. Alas, she had only heard it once before. And it was from an older child. And it was in the 1970s “when,” she explained, “everyone was using that word.”

How was this possible? How could my offspring, so new to the world and yet so often lauded for his eloquent vocabulary, have turned into Andrew Dice Clay before he’s even mastered the spoon?

Since I don’t know where else the child could have picked up such an ugly habit, I’m blaming his preschool teacher, the most nurturing, kind-hearted and apparently foul-mouthed woman in the world. I picture her leading the class in “The Wheels on the Bleeping Bus” — not because she’d ever do it but because it makes me feel less culpable in my son’s embarrassing outburst.

Short of soap in the mouth (because, frankly, it didn’t work when my mom did it to me), we’ve tried everything to delete the word from his lingo. We gave him a substitute “naughty word” — “flush monkey” — but he isn’t buying it. No one ever screams “flush monkey” when they get cut off in traffic.

One night, I encouraged him to say the expletive over and over again, hoping it would eventually lose its impact and we could move on with our generally unvulgar lives. Funny thing about that word, though; it just keeps getting better the more you say it.

Imagine, if you were just beginning to wade into the English lexicon, how exciting it would be to stumble upon a string of letters with such power. A word that makes people gasp, and giggle. A word that means so many things, and nothing at all.

“A little boy probably enjoys throwing around the word for the same reason he likes to shoot a cap gun,” said my friend Mott, who’s rather fond of the word himself. “He gets to wield a tiny bit of intensity in a mostly harmless way.” A linguistics major, Mott also explained to me how the word’s fricative beginning and commanding velar stop make it irresistibly fun to say.

As a writer, with an affinity for the subtle nuances of language, I’m loathe to decry certain words as “bad” and others…wait a minute. Did my friend just say “fricative”? Right here in my column? What does he think this is, the ’70s?

Published inColumnsParenting

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