Is It Time to Wash Out Kids' Mouths?

My son was only 4 ½ when he came home from pre-school one afternoon visibly upset.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Alexander called me a really, really bad name."

"What did he call you?"

"I can't tell you," he said, "because you'll be really mad when you hear how really bad the words are."

I tried to comfort him. "I won't be mad if I ask you to tell me."

My pint-sized boy then put his tiny hands on his little hips, looked me in the eye and said:

"He called me a f____g a__hole!!"

After a few moments of hysterical laughter (it was so funny to hear that come out of his mouth), I put my arm around him and said those were really bad words and he must never repeat them. I promised I would call Alexander's mother and tell her that her son shouldn't use language like that at school, and that Alexander should apologize.

Pre-school. He heard those words in Pre-school! I wondered what kids were saying in elementary school.

My son knew how we felt about naughty language at home. It was rarely, if ever, heard. In fact, a few months before this incident I had washed my son's mouth out with soap for using the "f-word".

Yes, parents used to do that (perhaps, some still do). It's not a great thing to do, but it works. That nasty-tasting soap instantly sent a strong and lasting message. My son is grown and now lives on his own in California. I suspect he's using curse words with his friends and at work, but I have yet to hear him use any foul language in my presence.

This column was prompted by a Washington Post news story that reported more and more children are talking in the most disgusting manner to each other, to adults, to teachers. You can hear dirty words in the hallways, on the playground, aboard the bus. And the kids spewing the filthy words are getting younger and younger.

A teacher at a Rockford, Ill., school, Dan Horwich, is quoted in the newspaper as saying: "They are so used to swearing and hearing it at home, and in the movies, and on TV, and the music they are listening to, that they have become desensitized to it."

I suspect most people would agree with his analysis that popular culture, and even parents themselves, have contributed to the fouling of our kids' language. But our children also seem to lack language skills. Children are not learning to increase their vocabulary, so they fall back on time-worn, filthy, slang words to communicate.

Since what we used to call vulgar language is now becoming so pervasive, I wanted to see how and when some of these words came into usage.

Swear words -- words considered inappropriate and indecent -- are thought to exist in most languages and cultures around the world. And experts say those words were usually associated with "lower class" people. Some feel the same way today.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the 4-letter "f-word" is Middle English and first appeared in print in 1503 in a series of poems. It meant sexual intercourse then and has now taken on other meanings. None good.

The 12-letter "m-f phrase" is of more recent vintage, the early 1900s. Only in the 1960s did it start getting widespread usage.

The four-letter "s-word" has been traced to before 1000 A.D., but was taboo by the time Shakespeare was writing his plays. He didn't use it.

But Shakespeare did use the four-letter "p-word", which can also be found in the King James Version of the Bible.

The five-letter "b-word" -- most often used in derogatory reference to women -- has been around since about 1400 A.D.

And the four-letter "c-word", even today considered one of the worst of the dirty words, first showed up in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at about the same period of the Middle Ages.

What do you think of people who use words like that all the time? That they are coarse, unrefined, vulgar?

School systems around the country have not made a big deal about the language in and about school. So-called "bad words" are not allowed in the classroom. But too many kids today feel they can say whatever they want to other kids, and adults, without any consequences. Those words, once taboo, are now part of their everyday speech.

Maybe the next generation won't consider any words "dirty". They will be part of the language all people use.

Or maybe somebody needs to get out the soap again.