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Even a sergeant-major would blush

IF I ask you to think of a four-letter word, beginning with F and ending with K, I am virtually certain that the first word to come to mind will not be fork. Deny if it you like, but psychologists would love it. They would say that you did not permit yourself to think of the more suggestive alternative or that you swiftly suppressed that line of thought in favour of more acceptable diction.

Nothing extraordinary about that since the human mind is a cunning piece of architecture. Most of us unconsciously censor our own thoughts so that the language we use is appropriate for the situation we find ourselves in.

There's no such filtering in the average school playground. Even the strongest among us will admit to flinching on occasions as we pass through that youthful world of fairly basic Anglo-Saxon. In other words, the er . . . mmm . . . effing and blinding, if you get my drift.

Certain words are now embedded in colloquial chat. They trip off young tongues with a mellifluence a Gregorian chanter would be proud of. But this is not a new problem or a sign of an approaching apocalypse. On my first teaching practice I was stunned by a very cheeky 13-year-old who, after I had timidly told him to sssshhh, rather explicitly directed me to get out of the room. In those days such a crime warranted a good leathering from the class teacher. I watched the administration of the thrashing from a safe distance and felt some relief that the little blasphemer was temporarily silenced.

Some 20 years later another young man told me in unfailingly graphic terminology what I could do with his Standard grade prelim exam paper. His punishment was to be suspended from school for one week and I must say that I was glad to be rid of him.

Not long ago I encountered him at a local supermarket and he was utterly charming. We did speak about tht rather painful thing he had once told me to do with an A4 folder and he did offer some kind of explanation. He was young at the time and burdened with family problems and the expletives which he had hurled at me were the weapons which had been wielded against him from an early age. Before we parted he told me that he was joining the Army.

I never thought much more about that lad until I saw a recent television series on the training of young soldiers. Every second word was imbued with sexual or profane connotations. I wondered how he might have reconciled the school that had suspended him for swearing with an organisation which apparently encourages its figures of authority to sprinkle expletives everywhere.

I have to confess that I am not at all sure about what conclusion we can draw from this. Maybe - and I am stressing the maybe, so don't send me furious letters about the moral decline of the nation - schools need to lighten up a bit on punishing blasphemers. After all, naughty words are commonplace in literature from The Canterbury Tales to Trainspotting. And it does seem that the very modern person may not necessarily possess a mental schema which understands that swearing is offensive.

We are not born intuitively knowing that our grannies et al will be horrified by certain words. An incident in my own childhood remains with me. My brother proudly said a bad word when we were playing outside and I ran to tell my father who was preparing his Sunday sermon. His tactic was to give us a full explanation of what the word meant. It was 1964, but I will never forget our slowly dawning horror as we realised the implications of this word which little brother had hurled at me with such relish.

These days I'm not squeaky clean around bad words but I do know that there's a time and a place. Maybe that's enough.

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