Filthy Words for 5th Graders

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

As an author of books for middle-graders, I think a lot about vocabulary. Can children between the ages of eight and fourteen — some novice readers, some expert — deduce the meaning of “recommence”? Or should I punt with “start again”? Will they understand that “picking” a lock means opening it? Often, though, the issue isn’t whether the word is too sophisticated; it’s whether it’s too rude.

I faced this repeatedly in writing The Book of Boy. The story, set in medieval Europe, is narrated by an earnest but naive young orphan who often has to use context clues to sort out the meaning of words.

At one point he encounters a baffling term:

I did not know this word brimstone. But I knew other scents [my master] Secundus was feared of — rotting turnips, and windy dogs . . .

I crept to the messenger who sat cracking nuts with the butt of his knife. “Excuse me,” I whispered. “’Tis only — did the brigands smell of farts?”

Modern readers may well have the same reaction to this word! Bawdiness aside, I put great thought into my phrasing. Soon after, Boy learns (spoiler alert) that Secundus, who has a faint sour odor, has recently escaped from hell. Shocked, Boy realizes brimstone is not old turnips or bad eggs or farts, but the very stink of damnation. But, by using a descriptor that Boy — and every reader — knows, I made it possible for both my character and the reader to puzzle out brimstone’s meaning.

Like such ancient terms as bread, wife, milk, and smite, the word fart evokes the earthiness of the Middle Ages, and its vocabulary far removed from the nuances of modern English. The fact words like fart have survived unchanged for more than six centuries — that’s kind of wild, as is the fact they were considered equally off-color even in 1350. Off-color, but oh so descriptive.

Some adults, I know, read children’s books like bird watchers peering about for bad words, and as a parent, I get it. But I also believe that in our goal of producing sensible and perceptive children, insight is a better path than prohibition. We shouldn’t suppress these words, but neither should we normalize them — that would ruin their impact, and fun! A child old enough to read about plague can be trusted with salty language. Yes, these words are naughty, but salty language is both a perk and a responsibility of adulthood. Welcome.