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Expletives should be deleted

Swearing is the lingua franca of prince and prole, but should it be heard in the classroom, asks Laurence Alster.

ust about everybody, it seems, is doing it, not least the second son of the man born to be king. No, not boozing or spliffing, but swearing.

According to recent reports (which, interestingly, the Palace didn't even bother to deny), Prince Harry's response to being admonished by the French chef at a Wiltshire pub for princely excesses was what one might expect from a lad brought up in the finest traditions of the English aristocracy; he called the chef "a fucking frog".

Depending on your age and politics, you may think that the noun was worse than the adjective. However, the word used just a week later by the American model Caprice is generally held to be in a class, or a sewer, of its own. Talking on daytime television about her part in The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's play about female genitalia, Caprice said, "One of my monologues is called Reclaiming Cunt. It is very challenging."

With only one person phoning in to complain, it seems that hardly anyone turned a hair at Caprice's clanger.

Not so lucky was John Cole, a former teacher at The Grange School in Shrewsbury. In the same week that Caprice held forth, he was hauled before the General Teaching Council for, among other alleged misdemeanours, "using words in the classroom that included bastard, shit and wanking".

We've come a long way since 1965, when the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan was pilloried for being the first person to say "fuck" on television. Today, he'd simply have to wait his turn. There it is on stage, in film and on television, in books and in the press (sometimes asterisked out, sometimes not), in the dictionary, on the playing field and, sure enough, in the classroom.

In other words, what was once either a thoroughly impolite ejaculation or a largely proscribed verb has now entered common usage.

It is this very commonness that is the issue, not least for teachers: first, in the sense that "fuck" now enjoys wide currency and second in that, despite its employment by prince and prole, its lowlife reputation persists.

For some teachers, its media ubiquity brings particular problems. In media and film studies, for example, it sometimes seems that scarcely a film exists that does not feature the f-word. It turns up in set English literature texts like Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. These and other works accurately reflect contemporary speech and, by so doing, may indirectly ratify increased usage. So what does a teacher do when, as increasingly happens, pupils use the word in class?

Mostly, it depends on the teacher. While some forbid its use entirely other than with reference to a text, others ignore it altogether. By and large, the rest say they express disapproval when it is used between peers and impose penalties if directed at themselves.

Much of the time, however, pupils merely wonder what all the fuss is about. When asked if they use the word as freely at home as they do in class, most look surprised at the question; "yes", they answer, "of course". But don't your parents object? "Why should they," is the response, "when they so often use it themselves?" Dig deeper, though, and some interesting facts emerge. Very few pupils utter the word in the presence of their grandparents ("'Gordon Bennett!' is the worst thing my grandad says," one told me), with just as small a number recalling having heard it from more senior members of society. They seem genuinely concerned that small children might pick up bad language from television, both pre- and, in particular, post-watershed. And most draw a very definite line at the c-word, female pupils in particular saying they hate it.

As for teachers' language, the judgment is clear. Even if their parents go with the linguistic flow, teachers shouldn't - in the classroom at least. While the occasional "bloody" is acceptable (though not for young children), anything meatier is off the linguistic menu. To begin with it's embarrassing, it can sound patronising and, ultimately, teachers are there to enhance rather than risk lessening articulacy.

As one pupil pointed out, the word itself may eventually be rendered inoffensive through its very prevalence, much as has happened with, say, "bugger!" (more as an exclamation, perhaps, than as a description).

Until such time, though, teachers would be well advised to play safe. In a job that frequently would tempt a saint to swear, take care to stick to words of more than four letters. Under your breath, naturally.

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