In the same way that very small children sometimes say the most offensive words with the purest intentions, there are also times when kids say completely innocent words in such a way as to render them profane.
When I was maybe five or six, my mom (who was an amazingly talented seamstress) made herself an über-sexy red string bikini – she was also exceedingly hot for a mother of three and wholly able to rock the look, even if it never went further than our private back yard.
Wanting to give her a compliment, I decided to try out a word I’d heard on TV. I didn’t know what the word meant exactly, but the inflection with which the actor had said it indicated to me that it must mean ‘attractive’ or ‘alluring’.
“Ooo, Mommy!” I crooned. “Ta-a-a-cky!”
In addition to not knowing the word’s definition, I also didn’t grasp sarcasm or verbal irony, either. My mother was (understandably) enormously offended by my ‘compliment’ for no reason that made sense to me.
It’s a common enough mistake, especially among young children. My little sister Rachel was forbidden from using the word ‘idiot’ when she was little because she used it so expansively – and accurately.
And then there was the little boy I taught for one day when I was a substitute teacher at a nursery school. During recess, he came running up to the supervising teachers, affronted to the point of tears.
“That girl called me a bad word!” he wailed. Concerned that we were going to have to broach the topic of profane language in a class of three year olds, we asked him what word the odious girl had said.
“She called me … pantyhose!”
We were able to clarify that he understood pantyhose to be ‘those long socks big girls wear on their legs’ but the tone in which the insult had been spoken was damaging enough.
This hurtful tone is exactly the reason why I’m currently faced with having to teach my oldest son not to insult his brothers with a word that would – under any other circumstance – be considered a compliment. Probably repeating something he heard on TV, my son turned to his younger brother in the car this afternoon and said, “Give me back my car, genius!”
I can only assume that he heard the word used in a moment of sarcasm. My son clearly doesn’t know what a genius is, but he certainly means it badly.
All things considered, though, I suppose if my boy is going to go around calling his brother names in anger, he could do a lot worse.