Americans believe in the freedom of speech but rare is the household that practices it entirely. If children were really to speak freely at all times, there would be fewer of them and I would be writing this from jail. Most families come up with rules and taboos beyond the usual banning of expletives and "shut up." I once knew a woman who forbade her children from saying "fat" for fear it would give them distorted images of their own bodies. Her children were naturally slim, but I suppose one cannot be too careful.
Bathroom talk has made startling inroads into the youthful lexicon, despite the efforts of many parents. I suppose it's hard to hold the line in a culture that gleefully embraces children's books such as "Chicken Butt" and "Walter the Farting Dog."
Lately I've been trying with increasing desperation to ban a particular word from my family's argot. This word is not offensive in itself, but it drives me mad because it is almost always the wrong word. Alas, despite all the force of argument at my disposal, I am powerless to expunge it.
What is this terrible word? "Mean."
Now, "mean" is a fine adjective. It can be used to convey any number of, forgive me, meanings. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary these include: humble, shabby, contemptible, stingy, ill-tempered, excellent (as in, "he plays a mean trumpet"), ignoble, abject, sordid, intermediate or average.
There's the richness of the English language for you! Line up four letters, and you have nuance without end. Each adjective conveys its own subtle shades of meaning, which is why one ought to use the right ones at the right time.
Unfortunately, to a maddening subset of children, everything not to their liking is "mean," whether or not it is, in fact, mean.
For instance, if a person dislikes the taste of a salad dressing and says so, he is being mean. ("That's not mean," I protest, "It may be tactless or overly candid, but not mean.")
A father who tells a girl she may not see "True Grit" because of the bloody tongue scene is mean. ("No! Overprotective or unfair, but not mean.")
And when a child doing homework asked, "What's one third of thirty?" and her mother replied, "You need to figure that out for yourself," can you guess what the mother was?
"You're mean!" the child yelped, and began galloping cheerfully around the room: "You're mean you're mean you're mean!"
I decided to change my approach from didactic to comic. Putting on a heavy Spanish accent, I quoted Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride": "I don't theenk dat word means what you theenk it means."
"That's mean," remarked another daughter.
"Argh, that's precisely my point!" I cried. "Me pointing out that your sister is misusing the English language is not "mean." There's no malice. I'd be derelict in my duties as your mother if I didn't help you develop a decent vocabulary."
"Well," she replied calmly as my entreaties bounced off her like Teflon. "I still think it's mean."
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at email@example.com.