Is 'Horseplay' a Bad Word?

Jerry Sandusky: excused abuse as horseplay. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)Horseplay: the word is as old as it sounds. The etymology has something to do with English Morris dancers performing with wooden hobbyhorses. If that sentence reads like hieroglyphics to you, horseplay's synonyms won't help much either: think skylarking, highjinks, buffoonery.

But you've heard it before: in 2012, horseplay is used often, particularly in high-profile situations. These days it defines-- or rather, blurs--the inflammatory.

In the current news cycle, horseplay is used in connection with everything from alleged hazings to an accidental firing of a weapon. The one thing that ties all the reports together: they happened to kids.

"Horseplay, not bullying." That's how a Washington teacher describes an event that left a 14-year-old contemplating suicide, according to his parents. The teacher is accused of joining students in restraining an eighth-grader under a pile of chairs.

In another murky situation, this time at a Virginia high school, the term was used to explain an alleged hazing incident involving the football team. The accounts are blurry at best, but involve teammates squatting and restraining underclassmen while being videotaped. "Horseplay" was the conclusion after the school's investigation. Nothing more, nothing less.

But the word has come to mean unthinkably more, especially in reference to football. It was "horseplay" that Jerry Sandusky called upon when charges of sexually abusing underage boys over 15-year period arose. "We were showering and horsing around," he stated of one incident with a child."

What exactly does "horsing around" mean? For a term so often intersecting with accusations of serious crimes, you'd think a clearer definition was in order. But for someone like Sandusky, that's what it's there for: to muffle the unspeakable.
More than You'd think invoking a wild animal would be somewhat counter to a defense, but it panders to an audience who misses the way things were. It calls to mind an action that can't be judged by today's standards, a nod to a time when parents weren't quite so sensitive to their children's needs.

"Had parents not gotten involved it would have been horseplay and long since forgotten," the attorney for the Washington-area teacher accused of bullying, told a local news station.

Is that really a good thing?

Last month when a 13-year-old girl was surrounded by two boys at her bus stop and wrapped in plastic wrap, horseplay was invoked again despite her mom's protests.

"This is not a joke. This could have become very serious, if they would have had a little bit more and nobody was able to get it off of her," her mother told local news.

Usually horseplay involves physical interaction, and when things get physical between children or worse, between an adult a child, it's crossing a line.

In 2012, we know that bullying has severe consequences, that hazing can be deadly and that no grown-up school official has the right to lay a hand on a student. So how is it that a 16th century word still holds weight as a defense?

It doesn't according to an editorial published in response to Virgina's recent high school football hazing incident. "Horseplay is the wrong word...Better descriptions are bullying, hazing and harassment - for the simple reason that while play had no part in what happened, a level of force certainly did."

So how do you draw the line between horseplay and abuse? You don't, according to Cecelia Badger, a Georgia-based assualt prevention specialist who believes in teaching kids the "no touching rule."

"I think that personal boundaries are something that we all have to set for ourselves," Badger told an ABC affiliate last week. "And I think they teach you a rule when you start kindergarten in the first place that says keep your hands and feet to yourself."

In other words, no horseplay.