When teachers cuss. And students hear.


A New York City teacher is fighting a $15,000 fine for using the word “cono” (COHN’-yoh) in his classroom. He is arguing that while the word’s literal translation may mean female sexual organs, it can also mean other things that are less controversial and fit for classroom use.

I wrote a print column a while back about classroom language after a local teacher told a fourth grader to stop “acting like a retard.” I’ve never been troubled by reports that a teacher slipped up and muttered a “damn” or worse when a chair fell over or a finger got slammed in a drawer. But I was troubled over this because I find “retard”  hurtful.

However, others disagreed, explaining that the teacher might have been trying to talk to the children in their own vernacular. Maybe the teacher knew that kids used that term when a classmate acted goofy, so she was conveying her disapproval in their terms.

I understand the adult struggle to relate to teens, whose language can be described as salty. (A visit to a teenager’s Facebook page is often a trek down Obscenity Lane. With my younger kids, I try to avoid sitting next to large groups of teenage boys in fast-food restaurants because of their penchant to use the f-bomb as an exclamation point. )

Remember the Florida teacher, seeking to make a critical thinking lesson more appealing to her high school students, who lost her job over a “Keep Your Mind Clean” quiz. The quiz included the question:  “What is a four-letter word that ends in K and means the same as intercourse? Hint: You do it all the time, especially when you shouldn’t, except when your parents ask what you did in school.”

The answer was “talk.”

In responding to students in West Virginia, where parents attempted to suppress the teaching of two of his novels in 2007, Georgia writer Pat Conroy fired off an epic letter to the area newspaper.

“People cuss in my books, ” he wrote. “People cuss in my real life. I cuss, especially at Citadel basketball games. . . . The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language.”

According to the story in the AJC:

The teacher, Carlos Garcia, declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Sergio Villaverde, said his client didn’t use the word. He also claims the court interpreter mistranslated the term during Garcia’s disciplinary hearings.

“The interpreter didn’t understand the way that the word is used,” Villaverde said.

But Bruce Rosenbaum, a city attorney, said “the hearing officer properly found that Mr. Garcia used inappropriate language in class and that the penalty imposed was warranted.”

New York is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. One ethnic group’s profanity can be another’s everyday slang.

Among immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where Garcia is from, the word is so widely accepted it became the focus of a popular online video clip.

The chameleonlike nature of the word is exemplified in the video clip posted by Sir Nube Negra called “Speak Fluent Dominican” where the host gives examples of “cono” to express: “Damn, girl, looking fine. Very Nice,” ”Stop bothering me!” and “I heard your mother died. I am so sorry.”

Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and founder of a language research institute there, said context, intonation, whether it was fully articulated and the extent to which its use was premeditated would need to be assessed to determine whether its use was objectionable.

Nevertheless, he said the term is an expletive. “I don’t think there is any getting out of that,” he said in an e-mail.

The city’s Department of Education accused the tenured teacher of inappropriately bandying about “cono” in class between 2008 and 2009 at the High School of International Business and Finance in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood.

–By Maureen Downey, AJC Get Schooled

49 comments Add your comment


November 29th, 2010
3:06 pm

where is the story?


November 29th, 2010
3:12 pm

Kids and Parents cuss out teachers all the time. So, who cares if teachers cuss, they are human after all.

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November 29th, 2010
4:35 pm

What about when students cuss. And teachers hear. And principals do nothing.

Ole Guy

November 29th, 2010
4:53 pm

Once again, it would appear that the pc gods are at it again. Just exactly what should we do in preping kids for the real world? Perhaps we should pretend that all is well, everyone says please and thankyou, crosses at the green; not in between, and performs the dirty deed with socks and starched shirts. Let’s get real, people…there’s a hell of a lot of difference between out-and-out “Sailor-style” cursing and the liberal application of “questionable” verbiage. Let’s not add healthy doses of hypocricy to the already-rotten education which appears to be the best this otherwise “wealthy” Country is capable of delivering. You want a “saintly” teacher? Go see the Nuns…they’ll show you saintly. In the meantime, lets stop fooling ourselves by thinking that by hiding these kids from the “evils” of reality, we’re actually doing them any favors…all we’re doing is salving our own feelings of repressive guilt and confusion. A good teacher, armed with solid backing from “management”, can always employ profanity in order to accentuate important points. Of course, there are many of a “psuedo religious” disposition who, in a dillusionary sense of denial, may be in complete disagreement.


November 29th, 2010
5:05 pm

Profanity (and Ghetto) is the only vocabulary in which many of these little animals are proficient. Too bad it’s not tested on the CRCT.


November 29th, 2010
5:25 pm

@ Watcher, the story is in today’s New York Daily News.

Maureen Downey

November 29th, 2010
5:26 pm

I did link to the story, which was written by the AP and is in the AJC.


November 29th, 2010
5:27 pm

My bad, the story is on ajc.com


November 29th, 2010
5:38 pm

@Hello? – If given a choice, I believe that teachers would prefer the profanity (Ghetto) vocabulary from “these little animals” as opposed to a massacre like “those little trailer rats” in Columbine. Don’t you?


November 29th, 2010
5:40 pm

i’d cuss too if i had to teach some of these kids. has anyone seen this kid who frequents the downtown are; this thing looks like magilla gorilla, wears a long skirt and baseball cap, carries a pocket book, has a scar on it’s neck, hands the size of baseball mitts and get this “sucks it’s finger”….. imagine that sitting in your class and you having to teach it.


November 29th, 2010
5:47 pm

@Marcus: I’m surprised you’re not the subject of “Lean on Me, Too: The Armageddon.”


November 29th, 2010
5:54 pm

Trailer rats speak ghetto too. It’s everywhere now.


November 29th, 2010
6:08 pm

Wow like for real I hardly frequent these sections on AJC, but I do feel bad for some of ya’ll. After reading a few comments just remember these animals could one day save your life in the near or far future.

HS Math Teacher

November 29th, 2010
6:10 pm

I’m a Southern, red-blooded male with an above average amount of temper; however, I don’t allow foul language in my class. I don’t think it’s too much to ask teachers to keep the language clean. Yes, I’ve let a “damn” slip out under my breath, but that’s a rare circumstance, and on each occasion, I apologized to the class for my lack of control.

Now, with football players at practice, it’s more difficult to not use the D or S word. However, a good coach doesn’t have to cuss to get his point across. You can use your imagination and come up with creative substitutes that get the point across…with the intensity you want to convey.


November 29th, 2010
6:15 pm

@Marcus so I guess that must be you someone has to teach am I correct.

@ Hello Sorry dude think you’re wrong on that account you must be watching too much BET or something, or listening to many music video’s man. Many of the kids I talk to don’t curse all that much unless they heard it from someone else.

the vernacular

November 29th, 2010
6:26 pm

I keep it clean at school, but I do let “crap” slip out occassionally. Sometimes it’s the only word that describes the quality of the work I receive!

Old School

November 29th, 2010
6:35 pm

vernacular, you wrote exactly what I would have written! I’ve used the same word on a few rare occasions to describe the horse-pucky that students turned in as finished technical or architectural drawings.

Had I made a habit of using that or other “cuss words,” their effectiveness would have been greatly diminished. I tried to get that very point across to my students but failed. I did manage to get them to the point of automatically apologizing when a “forbidden” word slipped out.

Such a sad state of affairs when folks limit themselves to a few worn-out swearwords but use them so casually that we all become immune to them.


November 29th, 2010
6:40 pm

I asked my 14-yr old son and he told me a few of his teachers curse almost every day in class. He said they use it like slang in the classroom and even drop the “F-bomb”. What!?! That surprised me, but seriously, he is 14. He hears it on TV and at home.


November 29th, 2010
6:46 pm

Never watched BET. So they speak Ghetto there too? Fabulous. And we wonder….


November 29th, 2010
7:02 pm

Truly…. I am so over the four letter words. If you can’t find another word in the english language to
express your sentiments…. shut your flippin’ pie hole and spare us all with your ignorance. Teachers
are not excused!

Toto: exposing the man behind the morning announcements

November 29th, 2010
7:08 pm

Instead of silence, I think one morning of this over the school PA would liven things up. It would give the students and teachers something new to talk about.
This would be icing on the cake!


November 29th, 2010
7:16 pm

The one time I heard my Mineralogy professor lose his aplomb in such a way – it was to tell us “Hell Damn No” that we couldn’t do a certain thing. The isolation of the language certainly reinforced his conviction on the issue!

I’m an ex-sailor and now a high school teacher myself. I do keep the profanity out of my own language at school (I think I’ve been universally successful). I just think it’s a better example for the kids.

Darn It to Heck!

November 29th, 2010
7:26 pm

This story reminds me a bit of The Human Stain, the Roth novel. A single errant word spoken in a classroom can have devastating consequences.


November 29th, 2010
7:38 pm

I thought we were supposed to be modeling to the students that one could express oneself without using profanity, and that use of profanity shows both a lack of creativity and a lack of class.

Was I wrong?


November 29th, 2010
7:41 pm

Sooooo if they say Jesus or God will that be O.K. instead? I do know that a teacher shouldn’t cuss…but you also don’t allow them to mention Jesus or God now do you? :)


November 29th, 2010
7:49 pm

@Hello: It’s people like you remind me why this society never progresses forward.

As far as this subject goes if you want kids to stop cussing. Have a talk with the parents and watch what their watching on T.V.

Don’t know if ya’ll have notice lately commercials / T.V shows are getting bold about not censoring anymore. The only word it seems I never hear on T.V these days is the F-bomb (excluding digital cable).

Still these cuss words are pretty much integrated into our society it would seem.

Warrior Woman

November 29th, 2010
7:56 pm

There is no excuse for teachers cursing in the classroom. It is unprofessional behavior.


November 29th, 2010
8:09 pm

Ray, it’s they’re, not their. Watching too much BET? Turn it off and progress!

a few points

November 29th, 2010
8:14 pm

@WW and others i think the best point is what Sam brought up; what about the student using profanity and admin does nothing? Should students be fined for outburst and their parents made to pay?


November 29th, 2010
8:40 pm

Cursing does nothing more than demonstrate a total lack of intelligence. Teachers must set a higher example and students should be held accountable as well.


November 29th, 2010
8:49 pm

Obviously, many of you have never been in a college classroom.


November 29th, 2010
9:11 pm

Samantha, are you suggesting that we allow students to take the Lord’s name in vain?


November 29th, 2010
9:15 pm

Kind of reminds me of a story…not sure if it’s true or Teacher Legend…

Student uses profanity in the classroom. Teacher whips out the cell phone and calls Mama, tells Mama what Student just said. Mom asks to speak to Student, so Teacher hands the phone to Student, who says “hello?” Mama shouts, loudly enough to be heard by half the class, “Why the #$%*# you talking like that in the #$%^$$ classroom?!”


November 29th, 2010
9:16 pm

The comments on here suggest more of the “anything goes” society that we are moving towards. I am a teacher and cursing, the N-word, the C-word, or any other profane or ethnic slur is forbidden in my classroom. I don’t play that. Cursing not only displays a lack of intelligence, but it downright disrespectful to adults in the room. The first time I catch my kids cursing, they are warned. The 2nd time, they are written up for detention.

I’m sick and tired of adults thinking that these kids can do whatever they want, whenever they want. Many of them have no decorum about themselves because no one teaches them otherwise. We (the adults in their lives) are setting these kids up for complete failure.


November 29th, 2010
9:21 pm

People get a life there just words. We are all just way to sensitive. Its time for society to toughen up a little bit.

Dr. Proud Black Man

November 29th, 2010
9:51 pm

@ Lisa

“We (the adults in their lives) are setting these kids up for complete failure.”

Thank you!

Retired Teacher

November 29th, 2010
10:05 pm

I had a Principal that told us we should not write up students for bad language. He said it was part of their culture. Told him the same rule applied to staff. He was taken aback. Don’t know why!


November 29th, 2010
10:05 pm

It is uncivilized for people to cuss. But the teachers should be allowed to if the students and parents do it all the time. Just tell everyone to stop and do not have a double standard.


November 29th, 2010
10:08 pm

yes, cussing can show a lack of intelligence at times, but please do you think your gonna get sixteen your olds to think thier like fifty year olds. Cussing happens and kids do talk this way at times and so do some adults. Some teachers think they are the cussing police and just plain foolishness. Get over yourself your not perfect either or even close to mother Tersa.


November 29th, 2010
10:53 pm

Whether or not you should curse in class, I think the real issue here is the size of the fine. $15,000 for using a bad word? That’s probably around 30% of his after-tax income. Is that really an appropriate punishment?

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November 29th, 2010
11:13 pm

Why do teachers get held to higher standard then your local preacher. Yes, you have to kick out all the sickous and pedofillas. But why can’t a teacher drink a glass wine or cuss once in a blue moon. I want my kids teachers to be human, not some kinda robot.

Ron Hyatt

November 30th, 2010
2:12 am

cono is more or less like damn,depending on where you are. See “Major League”. Also context. Spanish is big on context for word meaning, moreso than ingles.

David Sims

November 30th, 2010
9:27 am

Maybe Japanese cartoonists will create an anime showing how devastating curse-words are by having a pretty villainess use a few of them, causing the destruction of Tokyo. Or maybe a handsome hero will morally struggle with himself (Japanese animators can show that quite well) and decide he had no choice other than to scream “F— You!” at Godzilla, thereby blasting the monster far out into the ocean. I always thought that Sailor Moon might have eliminated Queen Beryl in (Japanese language) Episode 46 by using that very technique, rather than having to over-extend herself with the silver crystal.

Economics Teacher

November 30th, 2010
1:06 pm

The true bane of my existence in class is CELL PHONES and incessant TEXTING! You can take them away, write them up, whatever, but they are right back at it the next day. You’ve never seen so many people who are so focused on looking at their own crotch under the desk. If I ever find out that my kid is doing that, then she won’t HAVE a phone but some parents just don’t care. They tell me that being able to stay in touch with their children is more important or they say they will take away the phone, but then it is back the next day.

Ole Guy

November 30th, 2010
4:31 pm

Congrats Gerry! You hit the nail on the head. We have become such an overly sensitive society, living within self-imposed boxes of perfection…we all-too-often fail to recognize that the world is really a daunting place., We fool ourselves into thinking that the roses are year-round, lifes thorns are for “others” to contend with, and that only the good fairy prevails. Face it people, lifes a beach! The Pope cuses, the preacher has lustful thoughts, at least half the good people in church probably did the evil deed last saturday, and (shudder)…at last reports, it was hinted that the Easter Bunny just may not exist.

I would not be one bit surprised if adults’ insistence on presenting the world, to kids, as a perfect place in which no one does anything bad, would be tied to the incidence of teen suicides.

Pull your collective heads out of your sixes, people; come join the world as it really is…a lousy place where people fail,, spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating dirty deeds behind closed doors, and, sometimes even cuss. ,


December 1st, 2010
8:55 pm

I once told a 5th grader to “sit your ass down”. He was one of the most aggravating kids I have ever had. He replied, “Ooooh. I’m gonna tell my momma what you said.”

I replied, “Great! Get her up here. I can’t wait to have a conversation with her about your behavior.”

It is one of my fondest memories of that year.


December 6th, 2010
7:28 pm

Today our teacher told us to go screw ourselves and that we didn’t deserve to learn the lesson, so he didn’t bother to teach it at all. Does that count?