On Explaining Wheaton’s Law

PAX East 2010 with Wil Wheaton, Image: Nicole Wakelin

The day you have kids, you have to change your language. I don’t mean you have to learn a new one, but that you have to start eliminating all the words you don’t want them to use once they’re old enough to talk. This is not an easy task. Once you try to stop saying the words that got you in trouble back in grade school, you’ll suddenly become very aware of just how much they sneak into your vocabulary. It may be okay for adults, but not when it’s your toddler who has latched onto a word and is gleefully saying “Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t!” as you do your grocery shopping. It’s awful. Trust me.

Thankfully, my kids are now old enough to know better, and they know that if they say something they shouldn’t, then there are going to be consequences. This doesn’t mean I don’t slip up, particularly when I’m driving. It’s hard to spontaneously say “Oh, sugar!” when someone cuts you off because what comes to mind is considerably more colorful. Like most kids, mine surely know a few choice words but don’t dare use them, yet.

Of all the places not to swear, the worst one, the one where you have to be the most careful, is at a school. I accidentally said damn in my daughter’s first grade class and I felt lucky that I wasn’t reported and escorted from the building. They take this stuff seriously. The worst part is that you’re likely to get that look from the teacher, the one that made you want to hide under your desk when you were a kid. The only problem is that those desks are small and if you hide under one as an adult you risk flipping it over and that would probably be worse.

I am very, very careful to use only proper English anytime I’m at the school. I’m kinda proud, truthfully, and a little amazed that I haven’t slipped since that one time in first grade. You try to keep your cool when a kid accidentally squirts you with grape juice, or gets paint on your new shoes. I’m telling you, it is not easy.

One day last week I started chatting with a bunch of moms as we waited for our kids in the foyer at the end of the schoolday. The conversation turned to someone who was being a pain in the butt. (See, I said butt, not something more colorful. I can do this.) We were all in agreement that this person was being awful, and annoying and making things difficult for the rest of us. I shook my head and said the first thing that came to mind, Wheaton’s Law, and the minute that those two little words left my lips I knew I was in trouble.

These moms were not geeks. Not even close. They didn’t know Star Trek from Star Wars, Hobbits from Ewoks, or that Han shot at all, much less first. And they most definitely didn’t know Wheaton’s Law. It became one of those moments when the whole world slowed as they turned to look at me with that unmistakable expression of utter confusion and suspicion.

I tried to explain. Wil Wheaton? The guy who played Wesley on Star Trek? Sheldon’s nemesis on The Big Bang Theory? Nothing. They looked at me like I had a few screws loose. I tried to save myself by explaining that he’s this big-time geek and he has a blog and he has this idea that people should be nice to each other and not nasty and he summed it all up with Wheaton’s Law. I desperately tried to avoid saying the actual law.

So, of course, one mom asked what it actually was and I wanted to go hide under a desk again. Saying it meant saying a word that was clearly not acceptable in a grade school. The kind of word that will make kids giggle, and parents cast disapproving looks, but I was out of options. “Don’t be a dick.”, I said, and at that moment two girls exited the bathroom not three feet away, heard me, and giggled and whispered their way back to class. I am not even kidding.

What went through my head was a string of words that I didn’t say. I smiled and laughed it off as the other moms mostly smiled back. Although I did get a few shocked and disapproving looks. I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t my fault this time. I tried not to say it, I really, really did, and it’s not my fault those little girls walked out of the bathroom at exactly that moment. I didn’t even know they were in there and, ugh. Darn you, Wil Wheaton, you’re gonna get me in trouble!

EDITOR’S NOTE: For geeky alternatives to bad words, see Brigid Ashwood’s post on “creative cursing!”

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19 thoughts on “On Explaining Wheaton’s Law

  1. It’s really like being in a foreign country sometimes when you’re around non-geeks, isn’t it? Having to explain things to the Muggles!!

    Tasmanian Devil Garble™, I have found, is highly effective in getting the point across that I’m irritated/frustrated/furious/speechless, without causing my kids to say, “Mom!! Language!!” Nothing like a,”Grabbleshnerk*wheeze*snarlhowl*WHEEZE*!!!” to vent frustration and make your kids giggle!

    1. I’ve been known to curse after the fashion of Yosemite Sam, but mostly I just seriously water it down. I remember the combination of shock and relief the first time I heard my son, in frustration, uttering, “For Pete’s sake!”

      1. Exactly, Yosemite Sam….”Rackin’ sackin’ thisn’ thatn’!” is the version mostlikely to come out of my mouth. 😉

  2. Hilarious. This is also the case when making any reference that your conversational fellows don’t grasp. I live with teenagers who talk in memes, Simpson’s quotes, and other shorthand phrases. Since I’m highly impressionable, I lapse into teen speak occasionally which (to the uninitiated) sounds like you’ve just inserted completely meaningless random words to the conversation. Oh, and apparently I use big vocabulary words too. I’ll just have to learn to keep quiet….

    1. I’m going to be in such trouble when the girls are teens. Between geekspeak and the teenspeak that is sure to sneak in there, no one is going to have any idea what I’m talking about. It will be a Venn Diagram with a teeny tiny little connected bit in the middle representing about 5 people.

          1. I’m so happy someone’s already made those references. 🙂 Well done, geeks! You saved me the trouble.

  3. I have had my moments at my kids schools. I was doing a science discovery zone for the K – 3 kids at my sons elementary. I dropped a beaker of hot water on my foot and did say Sh&T. Oh man I wanted the floor to open at that moment. The third graders were all standing there cherubic faces beet red trying not to laugh. I said go ahead get it out. Forget that word ever happened. Robert came home from school that day to tell me that his buddies thought he had the coolest mom ever. Great am I cool because I like science and can blow stuff up? Or am I cool because I dropped the s word?

  4. Personally, when tender ears are present, I adopt “swearing” from various sci-fi shows/movies/books. “Frell”, “dren”, “frak”, “kriff” and “mivoks” are satisfying words to say and don’t get you in trouble with people who happen to know Mandarin (I’m looking at you, Firefly Fans!).

  5. “It became one of those moments when the whole world slowed as they turned to look at me with that unmistakable expression of utter confusion and suspicion.” Oh do I cry or laugh as I empathize with this?

    My kids were reading the ratings on our DVDs one day and upon hearing the rating for Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” which reads, “PG Parental Guidance Suggested [for] Quirky Situations, Action and Mild Language” we all laughed then unanimously it was decided that rating pretty much sums me up righ there.

  6. Words are words. I long for the day when nobody would bat an eyelid when a small child says a certain word, because that’s all it is, a word. It can’t hurt you. A word is nothing but a label for a concept. Disapproving of certain words is nothing more than pompous self-righteousness.

    Saying that, I would avoid saying certain words around children because I don’t want to look bad in front of my judgmental peers. Does that make me a hypocrite?

    1. Not necessarily.
      Words have meaning. This meaning is integral to the use of language to express emotion. By longing for the day when words don’t have this emotional context, you are denying the power of language.

      It’s not just ‘curse’ words that have this ability. Our language is filled with words like love, hate, ecstasy, malice, and confuse that define concepts or feelings rather than tangibles.

      In the same way that the large collection of labels that we apply to people for their ‘otherness’ (racial slurs, sexual orientation labels, sexist labels, etc) are generically frowned upon for the concepts and feelings they are conveying rather than the literal definition of the words.

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