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Whenever people (usually parents) want to discuss something they don't want anyone younger (or dumber) to know about, they will tend to spell it out because they figure that kids can't spell. Usually Played for Laughs, and is Truth in Television.
This can also be done with animals (e. g., mentioning a C-A-T within earshot of the dog).
- An old McDonald's commercial had the parents spelling out ideas to each other of where to go next. Their daughter suddenly suggests McDonald's. As it dawns on the parents that she understood everything they'd just said, the daughter then adds, "Oops, I mean M-C-D-O-N-A-L-D-S."
Film -- Animated
- In Disney's Alice in Wonderland, while trying to avoid the C word which causes the Dormouse to go berserk.
Gurgle: Whatever you do, don't mention D-A-R...
Nemo: It's okay, I know who you're talking about.
- In 101 Dalmatians, Pongo suggests getting the puppies to bed so he and Perdita can go out on a W-A-L-K. While not explicitly stated whether the puppies do know how to spell, a couple of them do beg to stay up and join their parents on the walk.
- "Wow, just take a look at those E-A-R-S..."
- And then, a little bit later...
"It's all the fault of that little F-R-E-A-K."
Film -- Live-Action
- Played with in Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules. Greg and Rodrick changed the door to their bathroom to conceal the fact they had a party while their parents were gone and are trying to keep them from noticing.
Rodrick: Does he know about the D-O-R-E?
- Done a bit more literally than usually in The Goonies by Data, who "cusses", "Holy S-H-I-T!" He didn't want to swear in the film for his parents' sakes.
- Subverted in a certain blonde joke, with the punchline, "Honey, why don't we send the kids up to P-L-A-Y so we can go fuck!"
- Inverted in Henry and Ramona. Henry Huggins has no idea what Ramona means when she hears everyone talking about "PTA" and insists that she wants some. Beezus figures out that Ramona thinks that they're spelling out something tasty, like "c-o-o-k-i-e-s" or "c-a-n-d-y". This leads to them having to buy a snack for Ramona and telling her that it's PTA.
Live Action TV
- In My Name Is Earl when Earl sleeps with Joy, Joy and Earl have this conversation in front of Earl Jr.
Earl: I have to tell him (Darnell).
Joy: Like H-E-double-L you do.
Earl: I can't live like this Joy, he needs to know we....H-A-D sex together.
Joy: That is B-U-double-L honkey!
- Played for Drama in Criminal Minds episode "100". Hotch is on the phone with his wife Haley after learning that she and their son Jack are held in hostage by George Foyet aka The Reaper.
Hotch: He's just trying to make you angry.
Foyet: Well she should be! She's gonna (covers Jack's ears and lowers his voice) D-I-E because of your inflated ego!
- From Lost:
Hurley: *glances at Walt* But what about the B-O-D-Y-S?
Michael: What are you trying to spell man, bodies?
- From Friends:
Joey (after walking into Monica and Chandler's apartment and hearing them having sex instead of babysitting Emma): You can't have S-E-X when you're looking after a B-A-B-I-E!
- Famously in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, When She Was Bad:
Willow: I mean, why else would she be acting like such a B-I-T-C-H?
Giles: Willow, I think we're all a little too old to be spelling things out.
Xander: ...A bitca?
- There's an example in one of The Comic Strip Presents episodes, possibly "The Beat Generation".
Girl: I'm having my P-E-R-I-O-D.
- Sybil in Fawlty Towers says they might have to put Manuel's rat 'to S-L-E-E-P,' to which Manuel responds, 'Spleep?'
- Lampshaded on Castle when Esposito, nervously looking at Alexis who happens to be in the squad room, spells out B-I-T-C-H (in reference to another person). Alexis and her father give each other a disgusted look.
Castle: She can spell, Detective.
Ryan: Probably better than you!
- Played with in the Red Dwarf episode "Parallel Universe", where it turns out that the Cat's alternate-universe counterpart is a Dog:
Cat: When's the last time you took a bath?
Dog: Oh, please, don't say that word!
Cat: What, "bath?"
Dog: You said it again. Now listen up: if you're gonna say that word in front of me, please, spell it.
Cat: When's the last time you took a B-A-T-H?
Dog: ... what's that?
- This exchange from the classic Doctor Who serial The Sun Makers:
The Doctor: Leela, I think you and I should take a-- a W-A-L-K.
Leela: A W-A-L-K...?
The Doctor: Wuh-Ah-Ll-K!
K-9: Walk, mistress.
- Played with on 3rd Rock from the Sun:
Dick: Dr. Albright has already RSVP'd.
Harry: You said you'd stop spelling in front of me.
- In one episode of Frasier, Martin tries to keep Eddie from running every time the word "vet" is mentioned by invoking this trope. It doesn't work.
- A Mad Magazine "Lighter Side Of" strip had the parents talking about their son's bad report card in front of him; the mother was relucant but the father said "just spell it." So they had a conversation, which ended with:
Mother: I-M W-O-R-R-I-E-D T-H-A-T H-E M-A-Y B-E S-T-U-N-T-E-D I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L-Y.
Son: That's I-N-T-E-L-L-E-C-T-U-A-L-L-Y!
- Tammy Wynette's song "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" is about a woman talking about her divorce in front of her 4 year old son.
- Billy Connolly's parody version of "D.I.V.O.R.C.E" is about his dog.
His Q.U.A.R.A.N.T.I.N.E starts today,
Because he bit the V.E.T. and then he ran away.
He caused me and my wife to have a big fight, and then, both of them bit me.
And that's why I am gonna get a D.I.V.O.R.C.E.
- Similarly to the Tammy Wynette example, "What Will You Do with M-E?" by Western Flyer:
Hey D-A-D-D-Y, I saw M-A-M-A cry
Say you're not going away
Is it because of me? Have I been B-A-D?
Please, daddy, please, won't you stay?
'Cause if you leave, what will you do with M-E?
- Britney Spears tried to get crap past the radar with her Double Entendre-laden song "If U Seek Amy", which contains the line "All of the boys and all of the girls are beggin' to If U Seek Amy." For the slow of wit, she's basically saying "F-U-C-K Me". Unfortunately, the parents did figure it out, it became a big deal (on FOX News), and most radio stations in both America and the UK do have the song edited to either remove the "eek" in "seek" (making it "If you see Amy," which, in the context of the song, makes no sense whatsoever) or get rid of the "If You" and the "eek" part in "seek" to make the song about seeing a girl named Amy).
- Jon tried to do this in a Garfield strip while on the phone with Liz, only for it to backfire:
Jon: I know a place with a great B-U-F-F-E-T.
Garfield: Make it a table for T-H-R-E-E.
- In one Pogo strip, Pogo tries to use it to talk to Albert without the puppy they're taking care of understanding. Unfortunately, Albert doesn't quite get it...
Pogo: I'm gone make the lil' pup dog some P-U-D-D-I-N-G for his S-U-P-P-E-R.
Albert: Uh-huh... Well... Hmm... Yes... Um... P-D-Q-R-S-V-P? Um... Well... Indeed...
- In Dinosaurs:
Fran: I don't want to argue in front of the B-A-B-Y.
Earl: Well I'm not chaning another D-A-I..no wait..D-I-A (continually spells it wrong)
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Stand Up Comedy
- Jasper Carrott did a joke about how parents tend to use this long after it has ceased to be useful - "You've left your C-O-N-D-O-M on the P-A-T-I-O", "Mum! What's a patio?"
- Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a bit about this. "I always feel dumb. It doesn't help that my wife spells everything in front of the kids":
Wife: Don't tell anyone about the I-C-E C-R-E-A-M!
Jim Gaffigan: (Beat)...who's in the emergency room? And why do I want a dilly bar?
- Josh Blue has a bit about how his parents used to do this around him well into his twenties. The punchline was that he still didn't know what they were talking about.
- In The Annoying Orange episode, "The Microwave Effect":
Pear: Don't mention the K-N-I-F-E.
Orange: The Kanifee? What's a Kanifee?
Apple: That's knife you idiot. He's not suppose to mention the... wait a second, I'm gonna get knifed!?
Diabetus: See, what you need is the T-R-E-A-T beam.
Slowbeef: The tit beam?
- In The Simpsons episode "Don't Fear the Roofer".
Marge: I'm going to take the dog to the V-E-T.
Santa's Little Helper: ?
Marge: Then I'm going to take Bart to get C-I-R-C-U-M-C-I-S-E-D.
Marge: Uh...I'll tell you what it means when it's over.
- Also this call back to Krusty's illiteracy.
Maude Flanders: We're talking about S-E-X in front of the C-H-I-L-D-R-E-N.
Krusty: The Sex Cauldron? I thought they closed that place down.
- In Fairly Oddparents Wanda tries to take Cosmo to the D-O-C-T-O-R.
Cosmo: What? Doctor? I thought she was spelling plumber. It's worse then I thought!
- A non-child version occurs in the Beethoven the Animated Series.
We need to give Beethoven a B-A-T-H.
(Beethoven hears this and runs out of the house)
Okay, who's been teaching the dog to spell?
- A mild example from Arthur, when Arthur casually tells a friend that someone "lost her P-E-N" while D.W. is in earshot. D.W. then complains about Arthur doing this, since she can't spell yet.
- Occurs in Recess: School's Out. The scene starts at breakfast, where T.J. is brokenhearted about being alone that summer without his friends, who were all at camp. His sister comes down, and this is when it occurs:
Becky: Bye Mom, bye Dad...bye T-jerk
Mrs. Detweiler: Now Becky, I want you to be nice to your brother; he's feeling S-A-D right now.
T.J.: I can spell, Mom.
- Metalocalypse has one made funnier by the fact that Toki's English is atrocious:
Toki: Maybe he needs to go to the...B-A-S-T-H-R-O-M-N-S-E.
- This can be extended to different things, such as secret communication. For example, "cat" could be described by drawing a cookie, an apple, then a trophy. As expected, this can also be used as a means of cheating at games such as Pictionary.