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Mom with a View


Elevating our mode of speech is not a losing battle.


In the town of Middleborough, Massachusetts, a citizens’ group is trying to impose a fine on those who “accost or address another person with profane or obscene language in the street.” I’m glad to see that someone is fighting back, that not everyone accepts the decline in civility, vocabulary and polite discourse as inevitable.

But it’s an uphill battle – and not only because of the First Amendment. The language in the streets definitely isn’t what it used to be. And no one (outside of Middleborough) seems to care.

My friend told me that she switched her daughter’s nursery school after the gym teacher told them to “Move their butts” (I’m even embarrassed to type the word). But she was the only one in the class who did. She was the only one it bothered.

Everyday conversation has become peppered with vulgarity, constant references to bodily functions and out and out swearing. Not to mention bad grammar! And it’s tough to fight it.

Yet Judaism suggests an even higher standard than just not swearing – we’re supposed to use “lashon naki”, literally a clean tongue – in other words, elevated language. In modern society, that’s almost like speaking Shakespearean English!

I try to teach my children to say “expecting’ instead of “pregnant” and they look at me like I’m from Mars. I want them to be sensitive to the nuance and delicate nature of words. It’s a lost art but certainly not an irrelevant one.

Even as texting and, to some extent, emailing have destroyed the ability to spell and any sense of sentence structure, it is still possible to be thoughtful in choosing our words. It is still possible to be sensitive and caring – sensitive not only to how our words impact others but to how they affect us as well.

Self-respect and respect for the Almighty’s creation dictate that we speak in a way that befits the children of the King. Any other manner is unbecoming; it’s below our lofty stature.

I refuse to concede that we've lost the war. But if we want to turn the tide, we need to start modeling the correct mode of speech. We need to “teach our children well.” Mostly through example. We need to encourage our friends, our children’s friends, their teachers to speak in the same elevated fashion.

We need to try. Otherwise I’m considering moving to Middleborough.

June 16, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 24

(19) Rachel, June 21, 2012 1:23 AM

Ricky Ricardo said "Spectin"

I liked the way Ricky Ricardo called it "spectin". One of my favorite presidents was Harry Truman, who shocked a guest when he referred to manure. Bess told the guest she had to train him to say that. I am in the curious position of not liking the use of vulgar language in public and also not liking the attitude of prissiness. Movies today are obscene, but movies of yesteryear were overly censored. Consequently in Gone with the Wind, Rhett couldn't use the word "mistress" when Scarlett came to him to ask for money. I have a little granddaughter and don't like for people to curse in her hearing, but I'd rather have them free to do that than to have a law punishing them if they blurt our a bad word. We can always explain to our children that some people speak rudely, and rude people are thoughtless. But every now and then, in private settings, I use some of that language too. Sometimes I think I'd like to never use the F or the Sh words and other times I think why should people get so bothered by them? Going to the bathroom and having intimacy are also part of most people's lives. When I'm around prissy people I feel as if I were in jail, and when I'm around potty mouth people, I feel like I'm standing next to a dumpster. But I am much more bothered by venomous political speech, the accusation of racism, references to Wall St fat cats, the 1%, homophobes, Islamophobes, and similar language suggesting that political conservatives are bad, greedy people who want to destroy the environment. I am sick of people who think that nice people never vote Republican. What bothers me a whole lot more than some people using scatological language is the character assassination by the Left of conservatives. This is the language that cuts off honest discussion of the issues.

(18) soraya, June 20, 2012 7:00 AM

euphemism does not always equal clean language either

In principle, I agree - everyday langauge is awash with vulgarity. However, I completely disagree with your example of "expecting" and "pregnant", or "nursing" and "breast feeding". The word 'pregnant' is as honest as it comes; and 'breast' is not a dirty word. "Nursing" in fact has connotations of illness, so by saying a mother is nursing her child, the phrase continues an attitude to which most Americans have lost all sensitivity: mixed messages. The child is not ill [thank G-d!]. The child is simply being fed and cared for. The Torah does NOT say "And Chava was expecting and bore Kayin...", the Torah says, outright, "herah" - pregnant, and not "mekhacah" - waiting. I think taking an example from Torah is just fine. But vulgarity, and harsh and/or unecessary formulations [the gym trainer could indeed have said "time to go now"] should indeed be bypassed. But the fight is more complex than just that. Listen to how people are told to get moving: "Go, go, go, go, let's go!" - not a tad OTT, these repetitions? "Awesome", over some new color of nailpolish. Not a tad OTT? How much in awe can we be of the latest color in nailpolish? Toning these expressions down is, in my view, far more in line with the sense of 'elevated' language - ie: making it situation-appropriate - than using euphemisms that preserve usage of langauge as, well, in some ways, not entirely honest. Teach your kids never to say awesome. You [a generic you, here] and they will discover a range of diverse and far more apt descriptors. THAT, to me, sounds like a good way to start into 'elevated' language.

Rachel, June 20, 2012 5:17 PM

Use the correct word, not a euphemism

I have always taught my children to use the correct words; I preferred "pregnant" to "expecting" (today many people would ask "expecting what?") Similarly, there's nothing wrong with using the correct names for body parts and functions (although there are certainly times/ places when any discussion of these matters is inappropriate.) That being said, I'm utterly disgusted with the vulgarity that has seeped through our culture; expressions that would not have been uttered by anyone in mixed company 20 years ago are now commonplace, even used on news programs, etc. I think the Middleborough attempt will fail, due to the First Amendment. Furthermore, threatening speech need not be "obscene" but it is potentially criminal.

Dvirah, August 13, 2012 12:15 PM

One Vote More

I very much agree with both Soraya's and Rachel's comments.

(17) Ginny, June 19, 2012 11:36 PM

Word usage

A note to Mordy: Pregnant is not a body part - it is a state of being and is the standard medical term for that state of being. That being said, I agree most heartily that we are fighting an apparent losing battle with regard to the English language. I teach English to adults and note how hard it is for them to write a paper and express themselves. Text speak, slang, obscenity are all problems that we need to address.

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