Twit for Twat

sister jodieA slightly different version of this piece was published on 7th September, 2008 in StarMag

A COUPLE of weeks ago, acclaimed children’s author and former British children’s laureate, Jacqueline Wilson, decided to remove the word “twat” from her latest novel,My Sister Jodie. It seems Wilson made her decision following complaints made by a 55-year-old woman, who had bought the book from hypermarket chain Asda, for her great-niece. The woman wrote to Wilson and, on getting no response from the author, complained to Asda. The chain stopped selling the book for a brief period. Since then, Wilson has announced that ‘twat’ will be replaced by ‘twit’ in future editions of the book!The question is whether or not ‘twat’ is a word that should be in a children’s book. In My Sister Jodie it is used by a nasty character to describe someone. The word shows just how unpleasant he is and it’s unlikely that he would be satisfied with ‘twit’ as a replacement. Therefore, I think that, in this case, the use of the word ‘twat’ is completely justified. Context is important and it’s not as if Wilson was inserting expletives willy-nilly into the book.

I know that many Malaysian parents and teachers would prefer for ‘twat’ to be replace. I don’t object to the word (or any swear words) in a children’s book if it’s the best word for a character and situation. ‘Twit’ just wouldn’t ring true – it would be too tame for someone as crass and mean as the character is supposed to be.

The woman who complained to Asda told The Daily Telegraph that ‘I did not expect this from a well-respected author and do not want my young niece to have to see this obscene slang.’ Her niece is nine and I know most children that age have heard all kinds of swear words, mostly at school, from schoolmates. I knew a few expletives at that age, although, I have to say, not from friends, but books. But knowing swear words doesn’t always mean you will use swear words. In my experience, children enjoy experimenting with new words that sound interesting and if they think they are ‘forbidden’.

I remember very clearly the time my father heard me calling someone a ‘bastard’. I loved the way the word felt in my mouth, but I had no idea what it meant. If my father had admonished me without an explanation I would probably have continued to use it, in secret and in defiance. But he told me the literal meaning of the word  and asked if I thought it was an accurate word to use on anyone I knew. I never used the word, as a child, again.

I don’t think we need to worry about our children being exposed to any words so long as we are willing to discuss these words honestly with them. My eldest son once used the ‘F’ word in kindergarten! When we found out, his father and I told him that we were sorry he had heard us use the word. We said we sometimes used the word when we were angry and we knew that he might get angry sometimes and if he wanted to use the word because he was angry he could, but only at home. We asked that he refrain from using it elsewhere as it might hurt and anger others. He never, ever, used the word again –  at home or otherwise! (N.B. 6th January, 2014 Not until he was in his teens, anyway!)

I really believe that adults don’t give children enough credit for being able understand and process information and situations. Children are accused of parroting what we say and aping what we do, but I think this only happens when they are exposed to conversations and actions, and then left to make what they will of them. We don’t appreciate the way our film censorship board and KDN play at being the nation’s moral guardians –  butchering films and banning books –  but we are no better if we don’t consult with our kids in deciding what they should and shouldn’t read.

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