When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted last week for injury to a child after beating his 4-year-old son with a thin tree branch, he used a number of terms to describe what exactly had happened. Peterson maintained that he cared deeply about his son but that he administered occasional “whoopings” or “spankings,” sometimes with a “switch.” He said he “swatted” his son—who was cut and bruised across his body, including on his scrotum, and had defensive wounds on his hands—about “10-15” times, but he doesn’t “ever count how many pops I give my kids.” Peterson is also accused of injuring his other 4-year-old son. In that case, Peterson texted his son’s mother, in response to her questions about the child’s head wound, “Be still n take ya whooping he would have saved the [scar].”
Words like “whooping,” “spanking,” “swat,” and “pop” serve an important function in Peterson’s narrative: folksy, almost cute, they deflect the violence. They’re nearly onomatopoetic, like the “pow,” “zap” sounds of comic-book violence, and like these bear little resemblance to the actual terror of a toddler—like Peterson’s—forced to stand with leaves stuffed in his mouth as his 220-pound father lashed him with a stick. “All of these words are devices to avoid facing up to the fact that they involve physical assaults,” said Murray Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who studies corporal punishment.
The words for hitting children are often like “whoop” or “bop”: homey, sometimes indirect, gentler than the words for hitting adults (like “hit” itself, which is rarely used). Straus and Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin who also studies the issue, listed “smack,” “slap,” “blip,” “box,” “swat,” or “punch”; “whip” or “whup”; taking someone “out to the woodshed” or “warming his butt”; “paddling” someone, either with an actual paddle or another implement, like a hairbrush; giving someone a “licking,” a “belting,” a “thrashing,” a “beating,” a “bopping,” a “whacking,” or a “hiding.” The evasive slang means that parents can think of spanking as existing in a special category. “I’ve talked to many people who’ve said things like, ‘Well, sure, I spank my kid when necessary, but I don’t hit him,’” said Straus.
When Charles Barkley defended Peterson for acting within African-American culture—typically more tolerant of corporal punishment—he made this exact linguistic distinction. In a CBS interview, Barkley said, “I don’t even like the term [beating]. When the media talks about it, ‘beating a child’ … we called it ‘spanking’ or ‘whipping’ our kids.” (Addressing the NAACP in 2009, for example, President Barack Obama said, “We need to go back … to the day when we parents saw … some kid fooling around and—it wasn’t your child, but they’ll whup you anyway.”) But 70 percent of Americans—all races—think it’s OK to spank their kids. And our language allows us to continue doing it without too much guilt.
Britt Peterson writes the Word column for Ideas. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.