To fully understand English, effing can be blinding

Yes, you may know tens of thousands of words but sometimes, says Tes editor Jon Severs, you just need a couple of well-placed expletives
1st January 2021, 12:05am
To Fully Understand The English Language, Effing Can Be Blinding
Jon Severs

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To fully understand English, effing can be blinding

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/fully-understand-english-effing-can-be-blinding

There are about 170,000 words in use in the English language, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, but over the past nine months, teachers could be forgiven if their lexical choices skewed towards those words contained under the group heading of "obscenities".

After all, there has been considerable provocation to do so. And while some will say that reasoned argument should always be the response when faced with the kind of political, physical and ethical quandaries school staff have had to endure, there is something immediate, satisfying and impactful in simply saying it's been "shit".

The use of that word may have made you wince. Swearing is still a hugely complex area of our vocabulary, soaked with social protocols and dripping with multiple meanings. You never know quite where you are with a curse. Is it expected of you? Is it expected of them? Have I overstepped the mark? Am I about to be chucked out of this Zoom room?

Writing this leader, I had to think carefully about how far swearing was appropriate for not just the medium, but particularly this part of that medium. Should editors swear?

On pondering this I thought back over my years at Tes, and in particular about the articles written by Ian Cushing and Rob Drummond. Both talk about authenticity of language, about the need to respect pupils' "natural" ways of speaking while teaching them the existence of other "codes" - no single way of speaking is "better" than another, they argue, but one may be more useful in certain contexts at certain times.

There is a tension, of course, between authenticity and context. One can override the other. And it is a tension that needs to be a crucial consideration in schools: how far is our maintenance of the language code of the context undermining the authenticity of the student voice in discussion? How far is it holding those children back? How far does that child feel welcome, not just in that conversation, but in the school?

Swearing is a small but significant part of this. In our cover feature this week, Tes Scotland news editor Henry Hepburn talks to Emily Nordmann, a psychology lecturer at the University of Glasgow, about the need for us to not shy away from expletives, as part of a wider discussion about that balance between authenticity and context. She explains that the codes of swearing need to be understood and made explicit.

If we fail to do that, we promote inequality, she suggests, leaving some pupils unable to "switch codes", and leaving stereotypes to go unchallenged, such as swearing being "something uneducated people do".

This doesn't mean pupils should be effing and jeffing at any time they feel inclined - if at all. It just means that we should not judge language use, but instead seek to understand it.

And we should offer the same non-judgemental stance to teachers in these most difficult of times. Yes, passionate arguments full of classical allusions and finely honed deconstructions of policy have a place in the fight against government mishandling. But, on hearing yet another U-turn announced hours before it has to be implemented, it is entirely appropriate and understandable for a teacher to elucidate their frustration with a heartfelt, from-the-gut, loud and proud, "For fuck's sake." 

This article originally appeared in the 1 January 2021 issue under the headline "To fully understand the English language, effing can be blinding"

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