Like most six-year-olds, my daughter, Maggie, knows exactly what she can get away with. Curses—“F” and “S” words are off limits, but milder oaths like “heck” are ok. She sometime pushes the boundaries to get a rise out her parents (always with a mischievous grin), but, when it comes down to it, she knows what she is allowed to say and what she isn’t. Maggie also has intuitive ear for language, and being a precocious child, she often imitates the speech patterns of the adults in her life. Recently, she’s invented a new exclamation of shock and surprise, “What in the hecking world?!”
Everybody loves this expression, and those adults who have heard it have laughed in appreciation, posted about it on social media, and even adopted it into our own, everyday speech. It’s provided us with some entertainment during this dark time.
As a father, I laugh along with everybody else, but as a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about why the phrase works so well. Part of it, undoubtedly is the juxtaposition of the innocent child with the mock-adult behavior, but, I believe, that without realizing it, my daughter has channeled her inner Alexander Pope and struck upon something that makes mild oaths more effective: mimicking the sounds of the stronger language which they replace.
We are taught that “fuck” is a strong oath. It is considered a crass word, banned from network—and even basic cable—television, and it’s inappropriate to say it in certain social situations. It is a word that if you use it too frequently in a story, will cause that piece to come with a warning label, and, likely limit the venues in which you can publish.
There are many common substitutes for “fuck,” but, for now, I’d like to concentrate on two: “hell” and “heck.” Of these, “hell” is considered to be the “stronger” oath. In fact, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the word “heck” originated as a milder, alliterative euphemism for “hell.” It’s hell without the religious baggage; a curse without the blasphemy. So, technically, on a scale from strong to mild, the would be ranked, “fuck,” “hell,” “heck.” One might say, “fuck” on HBO, “hell” on a network television sitcom, and “heck” on Nickelodeon.
Yet, especially after hearing my daughter’s latest pet phrase, I feel that “heck” is the more effective substitute. Part of it is the fact that, as a made-up word, heck can be used as different parts of speech. Even a six-year-old knows that “what in the helling world” would not work. Hell is a noun and sounds out of place when used as a different part of speech.
I believe, however, that there is more to it than that. Alexander Pope famously wrote that “tis not enough no harshness give offense/ the sound must seem an echo to the sense.” I would argue that the sound must echo the sense even—and especially—when the harshness is intended to give offense.
“Heck” and “Fuck” end with the same end sound, “ck.” Thus, they carry equal weight in speech. The “l” sound at the end of “hell” is a softer sound, and, therefore, does not sound as harsh when spoken out loud. Thus, “heck” imitates “fuck” in both sound and sense, while “hell” mimics “fuck” in sense only. When you say the words out loud, with conviction, the difference is obvious.
As writers, it is incumbent upon us to consider the sound and sense of words. While sound devices are often thought of in the realm of poetry. Those who write prose should consider their effects as well. The above analysis also applies to speculative fiction authors, as these types of word substitutions should be taken into account when creating fictional slang and alternative languages.
Additionally, those of us who are parents and teachers should always listen to the way our children speak carefully. There is much to be learned from the mouths of babes.