- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 10, 2005

The canopy of cool, green leaves overhead offered a welcome umbrella from the late afternoon sun. I stood against a tree waiting to cheer on my two high school runners as they competed in their first cross-country meet of the season.

Then, emerging from a well-worn dirt path came two teenage idiots.

This probably sounds judgmental. I try hard not to make sweeping generalizations about people. So I wasn’t about to draw any unfair conclusions about them just because they looked scruffy, had cigarettes dangling from their lips and soft-pack coolers slung over their shoulders.

In fact, I didn’t just judge these boys by their appearance, or because they were playing “disk golf” — a game that looks a lot like “hit a tree with a Frisbee” — while, all around them, more than 100 other teens exuded health and fitness by participating in a 3.1-mile running race.

The basis of my conclusion was this: The teen “disk golfers” emerged onto the path in the woods to play the next “hole” of their game. Just before they could fling a disk toward its target, the crowd of spectators yelled “runners” to clear the path — and keep the golfer-teens from being trampled by a herd of approaching racers.

Apparently this annoyed said “golfers” because they shouted back something about it being a public park, and their retort included an expletive heard most often in rap and hip-hop music and sometimes in the halls of Congress.

Did I mention there were children lining the path to cheer on their older siblings? And grandparents? And others who find it uncomfortable, at best, when people drop an obscenity in public, loudly enough to reverberate through the trees and create a verbal mushroom cloud billowing upward toward the heavens?

It seemed all of us shook our heads in unison at the selfish, uncouth behavior. I thought to myself, “Idiots.” Thankfully, at about this moment the first of the cross-country runners appeared from around the bend. If there was more swearing, it was drowned out by the enthusiastic screams of support from the families and friends of the racers.

It’s not that I’m a prude about cuss words. In fact, I’ve given up swearing for Lent on more than one occasion and found myself confessing my shortcomings several times before Easter. I have several friends whose self-control in this area requires me to ask myself, “What in the hell is wrong with me?” I give myself credit for at least recognizing refined behavior when I see it — in others.

But there’s swearing and then there’s shouting vulgarities in the woods, loudly, in front of families and strangers. It’s a moment that begs the question, what is wrong with our culture when we aren’t surprised to hear such language?

Of course, it isn’t just foul words that pepper public communication with unpleasantness. Case in point: The Sunday we spent this summer at a minor-league baseball park, where the teens behind us debated — and I’m not making this up — the relative pain levels of getting tattoos in sensitive places or having a navel repierced after childbirth or labor and delivery itself.

I could only thank my lucky stars the young man engaged in the argument had never experienced a kidney stone.

There wasn’t much I could do to shield my young son and daughter from the graphic descriptions of needle placements, not to mention the uncreative (four-letter) vocabulary used to describe the comparative degrees of pain.

After attempting to engage my children in some diversionary conversation (“How about that pitch — pretty fast, huh?”), I decided this was a problem I could solve by spending money. We took a break from the game to buy snacks and then moved away to some empty seats for a different view of the diamond.

The language issue heats up for me as my son has started sixth grade — a time when all boys may not become men, but at least they can pretend they’re manly by echoing the blue vocabulary heard in locker rooms all across America.

I know the pressure to blurt out the occasional four-letter word will be intense. Already he uses some familiar stand-ins for cuss words, prompting me to raise an eyebrow and remind him to be careful.

If nothing else, the explosive language I heard from the “disk golfer” reminded me why it’s important to teach my son that regardless of the messages our culture sends about casual cussing, it’s still offensive and thoughtless. Swearing inappropriately — not to mention brash guttural outbursts — will cause people to conclude he’s an idiot.

Of course, there are many more reasons to reassert a more respectable vocabulary than simply to avoid making a bad impression. Careful speech is a way to demonstrate respect for those around us. Worse, constant cussing seems to promote a coarse and caustic attitude.

After all, if you can mindlessly curse and flip someone the finger on the highway, why not run him off the road? Outrage becomes road rage absent self-control.

When you think about it, cuss words are just words, easily replaced with more colorful, descriptive choices for self-expression. I can’t help but think that if those teens in the woods had shouted something like “Oppressive health fanatics,” I would at least have thought they were articulate, even if they were scruffy-looking “disk golfers.”

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks.com) or send e-mail to [email protected]

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