A Child’s Garden of Curses.

The admirable Conrad sent me a link to “A Child’s Garden of Curses: A Gender, Historical, and Age-Related Evaluation of the Taboo Lexicon,” by Kristin L. Jay and Timothy B. Jay, and how could I not post it? The abstract:

Child swearing is a largely unexplored topic among language researchers, although assumptions about what children know about taboo language form the basis for language standards in many settings. The purpose of the studies presented here is to provide descriptive data about the emergence of adultlike swearing in children; specifically, we aim to document what words children of different ages know and use. Study 1 presents observational data from adults and children (ages 1-12). Study 2 compares perceptions of the inappropriateness of taboo words between adults and older (ages 9-12) and younger (ages 6-8) children. Collectively these data indicate that by the time children enter school they have the rudiments of adult swearing, although children and adults differ in their assessments of the inappropriateness of mild taboo words. Comparisons of these data with estimates obtained in the 1980s allow us to comment on whether swearing habits are changing over the years. Child swearing data can be applied to contemporary social problems and academic issues.

Now, that’s what I call a research topic. (I certainly knew the basic swear words by the time I entered school, and I remember my parents being upset when some of my knowledge was revealed.)


  1. Trond Engen says

    I can’t read the paper, so I’ll just note that “Child’s Garden” translates Ger. Kindergarten or e.g. No. barnehage, which is where modern children develop social skills — including a healthy taboo vocabulary.

  2. In this context it is surely a reference to the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses, which consists of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson aimed at both children and adults. Here’s one called “The Whole Duty of Children”:

    A child should always say what’s true
    And speak when he is spoken to,
    And behave mannerly at table;
    At least as far as he is able.

  3. January First-of-May says

    I think the traditional English term for a Kindergarten is just the German loan kindergarten. But Russian translates: детский сад.

    EDIT: I wasn’t aware of the Stevenson collection, but I agree that such a reference is much more likely.

  4. marie-lucie says

    I agree with JC.

  5. The metaphor, I think, is that the poems are flowers plucked from a garden.

  6. I’ve never read A Child’s Garden of Verses, but I remember the title from the Authors card game.

  7. Trond Engen says

    For the record: I too agree with JC. I just wanted to point out the coincidence.

    Also, a Kindergarten is made for plural children, as is a Danish børnehave. Norwegian barnehage is not specified for number¨, since the linking -e- is no longer a genitive plural.

  8. Børnehave isn’t really specified for plural any more, it’s just lexically marked for the umlauted stem. I adduce børneskammel ‘child’s stool’ which can only be used by one child at a time; Google has no hits for barneskammel, unlike barnesæde/børnesæde ‘child¨s seat’ where there is almost free variation.

    (Of course børne- originates as the old plural genitive and there are instances where form follows function, like plural børnebørn ‘grandchildren’ to barnebarn ‘grandchild’ — such internal flexion may have been more widespread earlier but when the old genitive markers merged and were fossilized as linking vowels (or -s), I guess random lexicalization happened in case of umlauted stems).

  9. Trond Engen says

    Lars: plural børnebørn ‘grandchildren’ to barnebarn ‘grandchild’ — such internal flexion may have been more widespread earlier

    Stem vowel harmony? If not, there should logically exist a barnebørn “children of one of one’s children”. The fourth corner of the matrix is børnebarn. Let’s hope not.

  10. I’ll give you euphony, but not productive vowel harmony. It is just one of those things that are the way they are because they got to be that way. (And yes it might on occasion be useful to specify the children of just one of your children but børnebørn does not specify, so deal).

  11. All sounds like “born in a barn” to me.

  12. Swedish Chef also comes to mind.

  13. David Marjanović says

    While there are compounds where Kind takes the forms Kinds- and Kindes-, only Kinder- happens to be productive anymore; while the plural is intended and still understood in Kindergarten, it is less clear in many others.

  14. Like Eieruhr and Eierlikör, for example (with another Germanic s/z-stem).

  15. Although you can time a single egg, in the Eieruhr example it is not the case that the Eies have it.

  16. Ai-ai-ai!

  17. David Marjanović says

    Ay caramba.

  18. As William Caxton had it in 1490:

    For we Englysshe men ben borne under the domynacyon of the mone, whiche is never stedfaste but ever waverynge, wexynge one season and waneth and dyscreaseth another season. And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a-nother, in so moche that in my dayes happened that certayn marchauntes were in a ship in Tamyse for to have sayled over the see into Zelande, and, for lacke of wynde, thei taryed atte Forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of theym named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete and specyally he axyd after eggys, and the goode wyf answerde that she could speke no Frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges; and she understode hym not. And thenne at laste a-nother sayd that he wolde have eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo, what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, egges, or eyren? Certaynly it is hard to playse every man, by-cause of dyversite and chaunge of langage.

  19. Middle English had at least one compound with eier ‘eggys’, ei(e)rmonger (documented ca. 1300).

  20. Of course, eggs are not one of the things one can monger in modern English. I wish the –monger were still productive.

  21. She was a warmonger,
    And ’twas little wonder…

  22. ‘Putermonger would be a fine word for Apple, Lenovo, and their ilk.

    “My business, Karoll Rufirant, is certainly none of yours.”

    “Say you so?” Rufirant’s voice rose. “Mates, he says his business be not ours.”

    There was a laugh from behind him and a voice sounded. “Right he be, for his business be book-mucking and ‘puter-rubbing, and that be naught for true men.”

    —Isaac Asimov, Foundation’s Edge (1982)

  23. Stu Clayton says

    David, why is “ei” pronounced as “ai” in German German, given the otherwise seriously sensible orthography of that language ? Is this merely another just-so moment ?

  24. You can monger cheese, and even rumors.

    Do ironmonger shops still exist in England?

  25. Stu Clayton says

    In Kölsch Lied is pronounced as if spelled Leed. For the layman it may be best to think of this as Just One Of Those Things.

  26. Stu: It seems to be a general tendency in West Germanic. English underwent the same change, whereby vain came to be pronounced the same as vain before the Great Vowel Shift. The opposite change is happening in Dutch even as we speak, for both ei and the identically pronounced ij are coming to be pronounced like ai.

  27. Stu Clayton says

    This must cramp the style of time travellers. They will not understand much, get angry like Caxton’s merchant and end up in fisticuffs with their ancestors. I see now why they put Daniel in Stargate.

  28. Arrgh: caused vain to be pronounced the same as vein.

  29. If the OE egg word had resisted replacement by its ON cognate, we would perhaps have airenmongers beside ironmongers.

  30. David Marjanović says

    Is this merely another just-so moment ?

    I suppose that’s a change which is simply younger than the spelling which has been (mostly) entrenched since the 15th or 16th century.

    In Kölsch Lied is pronounced as if spelled Leed. For the layman it may be best to think of this as Just One Of Those Things.

    I think that’s simply a retention. Just around the time of the earliest writings, High-Enough German turned the old /eː/ into a bunch of diphthongs that have ended up as Modern Standard German ie /iː/; Kölsch is Low enough that it may not have joined.

  31. The metaphor, I think, is that the poems are flowers plucked from a garden.

    And a very conventional metaphor it is.

  32. “It takes a lot o’ believing,” said the Gaffer, “though I can see he’s been mixing in strange company. What’s come of his weskit? I don’t hold with wearing ironmongery [Sam’s mail shirt], whether it wears well or no.”

  33. marie-lucie says


    I am surprised to see monger used as a verb in some of the comments, as well as a noun. Is the use as a verb attested? was there ever a verb “to mong” (or at least “to m–ng”, with a different vowel), which fell out of use at an early date?

  34. The verb mong ‘buy, sell, barter, spread gossip’ was last seen in “normal” use by the OED in 1606. It is occasionally back-formāted into a brief existence, however. In particular, I can’t resist the OED’s quotation from The Scotsman for 16 October 1998: “They […] looked at me as if I’d asked for the best end of dugong in a narwhal sauce. You’d have thought it was the most outlandish request they’d ever faced in 30 years of monging fish.”

    There is also a similar ephemeral verb monger, first recorded in 1928.

  35. John Cowan says

    The verb mung or munge ‘make changes to something until the original structure or function is lost’, however, remains in active use. The former spelling has been explained as an acronym for Mung Until No Good.

  36. I am surprised to see monger used as a verb in some of the comments

    It is warmongering, not warmonging,

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