Growing up, as I did, in a cloud of innocence, I held an unshakeable belief until about the age of 11 that the 'F-Word' was 'fart'. People talked of this elusive and illicit word beginning with ‘F’ and I, having been forbidden from using the word 'fart' by my mother who deemed it uncouth, put two and two together and came up with about 0.3.
This is sadly no longer the case. Just as the media love to trumpet the sad fact that children are becoming sexualised at a much younger age, so too are they exposed to verbal profanities far earlier on than I was. At first I was horrified at the words used by children, all of whom are under the age of ten, when they think I'm out of earshot. Now I have become more used to it and - dare I admit it - even find their childish use and understanding of adult words quite amusing.
My first experience of this came this time last year when I spent three days at the school shadowing the incumbent matron in order to learn the daily routine of the boarding house and meet some of the children before I started in September. One of the nights I spent there, my predecessor and I sat on the landing outside the girls’ dormitories waiting for them to settle down to sleep, when the tiny little face of one of the smallest Year Three girls appeared at the door.
‘Matron,’ she whispered, conspiratorially, ‘just thought you ought to know, Rosie swore...’ she paused before adding as an afterthought, ‘and said something that made Georgina cry.’
‘I see,’ said Matron, ‘and what was it she said?’
‘The C-Word,’ said our little informant, matter-of-factly.
I was taken aback. How could this possibly be? I hadn’t become acquainted with this most vulgar of terms until my mid-teenage years. Was a seven-year old standing before me, telling me that ten-year olds were bandying the word about as if it were any other common-or-garden playground insult?
Matron, from her years of experience, knew better though.
‘Do you mean the C-R-A-P word, sweetheart?’ she whispered back to the child, who took a moment to work out what had just been spelled out to her.
‘C-R-A-P?’ she spelled it off on her own fingers as she mouthed the letters, stringing them together into a word, ‘yes, yes, that was it.’
Crisis averted. Although stern words were, of course, had with Rosie.
One year on, I found myself in the same position. As we left the dining hall the other week, a little girl tugged on my hand and informed me quietly that one of the boys in the year above had used a swear word.
‘A least, I think it was a swearing word,’ she reflected.
My experience has taught me that what the children consider to be swear words can range from the most ugly insults to a simple ‘shut up’ or ‘buzz off’. The little girl in question was from a very well brought-up, polite family and she was often easily shocked by the behaviour of those around her. I decided to draw on the wisdom of the previous matron to determine the strength of the offence.
‘Is there any way you can tell me what he said without using the word itself? Do you think you could spell it for me?’
She nodded. I crouched down and she cupped her hands around my ear to whisper the vile utterance, as if even spelling it aloud could pollute the air around us.
‘B-I-R-C-H… I think.’
Oh dear. Repercussions would have to follow if he really had used the female-dog word. Yet a small part of me was relieved it was only that. Far worse would have been the outcry had his insult of choice been the unforgivable ‘F--- Y-E-W.’