On September 21st in the year 2001, an opportunity was missed.
Season 2 Episode 27 of SpongeBob SquarePants aired as “Sailor Mouth.”
However, it should have been named “SpongeBob SwearPants.”
Regardless, the episode might be my favorite. It’s all about SpongeBob learning a bad word and that’s kinda my jam; I’m a linguist who studies swear words.
You can skip this next section if you’re familiar with the episode.
For those of you who don’t remember (or have never seen) it, here’s a rundown:
SpongeBob finds a word he doesn’t know written on the side of a dumpster. Patrick comes along and explains that it’s a “sentence enhancer.”
Then they start to use it. As much as possible. Even at the Krusty Krab the next day. This word gets a strong reaction from the customers; they leave, disgusted.
Mr. Krabs runs out of the bathroom, with toilet paper stuck to his leg, panicked because the Krusty Krab is empty. Squidward tells him everyone left because “the two barnacle-mouth brothers” learned a new word: [dolphin chirp].
Krabs is shocked. He tells SpongeBob and Patrick it’s a bad word. They’re distraught; they never meant to be bad.
Mr. Krabs tells them there are 12 other bad words they should never use. He makes them promise to never use [dolphin chirp] again.
SpongeBob and Patrick are relieved to know better now. They decide to spend their time playing “a nice, wholesome” game. This goes swimmingly until SpongeBob, in a moment of frustration, let’s [dolphin chirp] escape his lips.
Then it’s a race to tell on each other, because now Patrick has said it too.
Mr. Krabs punishes the boys by making them paint the Krusty Krab. Except, before this punishment can begin, he trips and lets loose all 13 bad words.
Then, SpongeBob and Patrick run off to tell on Mr. Krabs — to his mom.
In the telling, they say every single word. She faints.
Then, SpongeBob, Patrick, and Mr. Krabs are painting Mrs. Krabs’ home as punishment for talking “like sailors*.”
So, now that you’ve got the gist of it, let’s talk about the way that swearing is moralized in this episode.
Because it is heavily moralized.
As mentioned in the re-cap, when introduced to [dolphin chirp], SpongeBob and Patrick are delighted by it. They think it’s for talking fancy — for making “a spicy sentence sandwich.”
This is by far my favorite way to frame swearing: perfect for making spicy sentence sandwiches (at least when not being used abusively).
However, it immediately becomes evident that not everyone agrees that words like [dolphin chirp] are for lip-tingling fun. Even before Patrick arrives and teaches SpongeBob that the word is for enhancing his sentences, a garbage man overhears SpongeBob when he’s simply reading the word aloud. Aghast, the garbage man asks SpongeBob if he kisses his mother “with that mouth.”
The ways that the characters within the episode communicate the morality of swearing fall into 3 categories:
- In the ways the Bad Words ™ are referred to
- In the reactions to uses of the Bad Words ™ and finally
- In the ways the users of the Bad Words ™ are referred to.
The garbage man is using Categories 2 and 3. He reacts with shock and disgust (2) and then implies that someone who uses that word should not be kissing their mother — probably because their mouth is too dirty from the word (3).
The only time we see any neutral or positive attitudes about swearing is from SpongeBob and Patrick. At least, they feel good about it before they are taught that what they’re doing is BAD. Before Mr. Krabs’ lecture, they’re caught up in the fun of their sentence enhancers.
“Sentence enhancers” is exactly how they were using [dolphin chirp]. They were giggling and splicing the word into their sentences for a dash of spice.
There were no abusive instances.
There were no insults.
They didn’t even use it in frustration.
They were just making those spicy sentence sandwiches.
And, in classic SpongeBob and Patrick fashion, they were oblivious to others’ reactions.
Remember, we got a sample of anti-[dolphin chirp] attitude right off the bat.
But the scene in the Krusty Krab is where we see that the garbage man’s disgust with this type of language is widely shared.
There is gasping.
Moms cover their children’s ears.
Squidward grows a human ear because he can’t believe he is hearing [dolphin chirp] over the intercom.
Patrons leave, grumbling in protest of the foul words they’ve heard.
This all falls into Category 2: reactions to the word. However, these underwater burger-eaters make evaluations that go beyond being about the word and extend to being about the people using the words. Namely: SpongeBob and Patrick. Reactions of this kind land in Category 3. From “That guy’s talented, he doesn’t have to work blue” (which has layers to it thanks to the loaded classism in there) to Squidward calling SpongeBob and Patrick “the two barnacle-mouth brothers” — the scene unfolds to depict disgust at the swear and the swearers.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not just the speakers that get brought down via association with B A D words. The Krusty Krab gets dragged down too for seemingly allowing this type of language and the people crass enough to use it. The way the Krusty Krab is guilty by association with a single bad word, and its foul-mouthed users, further emphasizes the powerful presence of this language. One customer complains that they “thought this was a restaurant, not a guttermouth convention.” Another urges their partner to “go find somewhere more family oriented.” And yet another declares that they’re never eating [there] again. In a world where using bad words is an indicator of depravity, the Krusty Krab is guilty by proxy.
Even amidst all of this obvious disdain, the pinnacle of this anti-swearing attitude comes from Mr. Krabs. When he learns what SpongeBob and Patrick have been saying, he responds that he ought to punish them.
SpongeBob and Patrick are confused. After all, it’s just “fancy talk” to them. During his crusade, Krabs won’t even say the word. He dances around it, saying “There ain’t nothing fancy about that word.” Since he’s obfuscating, the boys are further confused. SpongeBob asks if he means [dolphin chirp]. Krabs responds by yelling at them to stop saying it because “it’s a bad word.”
This lecture is the first time we get a real look at instances of Category 1. Krabs will only refer to [dolphin chirp] vaguely: “that word” or “bad word number 11.” The indefiniteness is a pervasive pattern and is often paired with negative evaluations like “bad” or “[words]-you-should-never-use.” He doesn’t even tell them why [dolphin chirp] is bad. Remember: they hadn’t used it against or at anyone. Nevertheless, they’re distraught at their own “bad” behavior. Eager to be good, SpongeBob and Patrick promise Mr. Krabs that they will never use that word again.
When the show cuts to the boys later that day, they’re grateful for their new understanding “because classy sophisticates like us shouldn’t stain our lips with cursing.” Another sneaky bit of classism! They’re relieved to now know how to not be bad. They’re done with activities that might degrade them like letting their mouths slip into the gutter, so they’ve decided to play “a nice, wholesome game.”
And it is wholesome.
Or it is until, in a moment of frustration, SpongeBob regresses to being a barnacle-mouth.
It just slipped out.
This is the first time we see [dolphin chirp] used in a negative way. Sure we’ve seen people react negatively, but this is the first time it was used in frustration or to otherwise express something negative.
But it isn’t the last time we see a negative use. Krabs decides the boys need a punishment for letting their mouths be so foul: painting the whole restaurant. A little manual labor to learn a lesson, the good ol’ sailor’s way. When he’s bringing back the buckets of paint, Krabs trips.
Then he lets ALL 13 bad words fly.
In a moment of pain and, more importantly, frustration, Mr. Krabs spews the exact language he eschewed the day before.
At the core, this is what the episode seems to be getting at. Despite spending most of its 12 minutes showing person after person (sea creature after sea creature?) pontificating about swearing, this is the crux of the episode: even the people telling you not to use bad words are probably using bad words.
This isn’t the most overt inversion of the moralization that the writers could have gone for, but it’s a crumb and I’ll take it. The ending scenes are playful. Krabs steals a coin from his mom’s pocket while he’s admonishing SpongeBob and Patrick — heathens — for having caused her to faint with their foul mouths. The obvious contrast here paints a funny picture of hypocrisy and relative morality. It doesn’t undo all of the anti-swearing rhetoric, but it at least offers an amusing challenge to it.
At first glance, the episode clearly does more to reinforce popular ideas about swearing: it’s immoral, foul, the people using it are low-class bottom-feeders, and women can’t handle hearing it — especially older women like Mrs. Krabs. But, the writers poke fun at the moralization. At the end, the episode continues to flirt with this by implying that even little ol’ Mrs. Krabs uses bad words. The episode closes with everyone laughing together. It’s fitting.
Of course, an episode of SpongeBob doesn’t need to make a grand statement about the way our society perceives swear words and the people who use them.
Which is good.
Because it didn’t.
But, it did have a lot of [dolphin chirp] fun reveling in the paradox created by the way swearing is moralized and the fact that most people swear anyway.
*Yes, I understand that the references to swearing being the equivalent to talking “like a sailor” are the reason for the episode’s original name. But, surely the perfection of replacing “square” with “swear” as a pun deserved the opportunity to shine.