Jake and the *expletive* Neverland Pirates
Let me just say that I realized before even starting this post that it was going to make me sound like a stick in the mud, fun-hating, grumpy old man. I may be all of those things. Actually it’s hard to quantify me as “old” at this point, although I’m sure to a six year-old I am ancient.
Speaking of six year-olds, our daughter has taken a strong liking to a very successful animated Disney cartoon called “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” It seems relatively harmless, certainly no worse than other Disney shows in terms of weak moral themes and family friendliness. But there is one aspect of the show which stands out significantly: incessant use of expletives.
First I need to frame that statement. American English has started to equate the word expletive with profanity, as if they are synonymous. In reality an expletive can be any adjective or adverb that “does not contribute to the propositional meaning of a sentence,” usually to intensify its emotional force. Quite often an expletive will even stand on its own as a complete phrase (as in what one shouts after smashing one’s thumb with a hammer.) Whether you consider the word used to be profane or not, any word qualifies as an expletive when used in that manner.
So this show, which I’ll just refer to as “Jake”, makes frequent use of expletives. The most glaring example is Cubby who exclaims, “Oh, coconuts!” at least twice per episode, whenever anything goes even slightly amiss. He is not alone, Izzy can be heard shouting something about “shipwrecks” and there’s the well worn classic, “oh, no!” from nearly every character on the show. I’m leaving a lot out, suffice to say that if you’ve ever seen it, you know all of this already.
Why do I care? That’s really what this post is about. The assumption (in this show and in our society) is that the use of expletive attributives is acceptable so long as the word used is not itself considered profane. Most people I know would go along with that. But let me ask this, is it always acceptable to replace a profane word with an innocuous word and use it in the same context? I’ll offer an example, aware that it’s Black History Month… If someone was stereotyping a group of black people but instead of using the vilest possible term they replaced it with “blacks” or “negros”, would that make it fine? I don’t know about the rest of the country, but here in Portland that would not fly. From just that one example we see that there is significance in one’s intent with a word’s use, not just the profanity of the word itself.
What then is our intent when we use an expletive to express our discontent? Most often it amounts to little more than an emotional outburst. I propose that it relates most directly with whining, shouting, and crying out. None of those are behaviors I want my daughter to exercise, and certainly they are actions I try to abstain from myself.
Originally expletives were introduced to serve as filler or padding. For instance in achieving iambic pentameter in a poem or stretching out a novel (a few expletives per page adds up quickly.) We don’t use them that way anymore, at least not as their primary intent. Now they are used to express ourselves as quickly and bluntly as possible, often with the subconscious desire to incite a response from others within earshot. In my opinion, it is a very low form of communication, akin to grunts and gestures. Are we devolving as a society back to communicating through grunts and gestures? Do we not value vocabulary and grammar as higher forms of communication? If so, then why don’t more people complain when a show as popular and intentionally quotable as “Jake” relies so heavily on such a poor habit.
In spite of the show, and our culture, I will discourage our daughter from relying on expletives to express herself. I think it makes a person appear uneducated and demonstrates a lack of respect for language and communication. More to the point, I don’t separate the intent of a word’s use from its profanity: replace a curse word with an everyday word and I view the everyday word as equally impolite. So in my house, you may just get your mouth washed out with soap for saying coconuts.