Growing up as the oldest of four sisters meant I had certain house rules to follow and help enforce. Definitely no watching television, except for special family nights of high-brow, culturally enriching PBS specials. Certainly no clean clothes left lying all over the floor of our rooms. And, absolutely, positively no swearing.
To even accidentally stumble over the first few syllables of the guttural and decidedly coarse sounds of profanity was considered a one-way ticket to bed without supper. Not that my sisters and I required such reminders. The thought of letting a four letter word escape from my lips felt as dirty as throwing up a little inside my mouth.
This devotion to the sanctity of the spoken word was curiously in spite of the fact that my parents themselves swore like sailors.
“Clean up your fucking room!” My mother had a habit of sometimes painting her parenting requests with swirls of colorful language, using just enough emphasis on the selected sounds so as to put her point across more accurately. The point obviously being to take her fucking seriously.
My father rarely cursed in front of us, but that was probably because he seldom spoke in general, saving his sporadic stipulations to be delivered in a calm and commanding voice that sounded not unlike the monotonous delivery of Al Pacino in the The Godfather. “Clean…your…fucking…room…now.” A demand from my father was your last chance to take care of the issue before you likely discovered the head of a horse under your bed sheets.
Eventually, at the age of ten, I found myself invited to a party during which reverberations of profanity echoed through the night air of the backyard like tender kisses being blown through the breeze by wood nymphs. With the chaperoning adults inside the house, my fifth grade peers felt a refreshing wave of freedom and power. As I stood in the middle of several ongoing conversations, each punctuated frequently by a plethora of varied swear words, I likened the scene to an orchestra of obscenities, conducted by the faith in our emerging adulthood that cursing was our mantle to accept, a rite of passage, as critical to our development as any hormones or hair growth and I accepted my role in what I considered the next phase of my communicative existence.
Although I was wise enough to continue to refrain from cursing in front of my parents, I spent the next twenty years honing my craft. Initially, I only felt comfortable dabbling in what I would consider B-grade swears — as in “Damn, these tater-tots are hot!” and “oh, hell, I missed the bus!” Just enough to lace my language with a hint of flavor, but not enough spice to ruffle the feathers of those within earshot.
I went to college and then on to work and it was there that I finally immersed myself in an ocean of obscenities, wading through such dirty language with my fellow colleagues that I began to lose my grip on adjectives that didn’t start with “f” or “sh.” I became fluent in profanity and eloquent in execration. Cursing felt grown-up. It was still taboo enough to make me feel badly behaved, but without breaking too many societal morays so as to label myself a degenerate.
Eventually, I married someone who delighted in the custom of cursing as much as I did, and together we wove a web of blasphemy and objurgations from morning ‘til night. No matter the tone of our conversation — be it an angry rant about aggressive drivers or a poetic rhapsody lauding the virtues of Mother Teresa, we found a way to incorporate a respectful number of swears.
As much as I’d like to write that we lived “happily fucking after,” our past-time of expletive expressing was cut short by a momentous event that caused us to re-examine our vernacular: We had a baby.
Like most new moms and dads, we had the best of intentions for parenting, at least for the first few months of our son’s life, and that included a desire to avoid him exposure to bad language. Everyone knows you don’t curse around little kids. It’s just one of those rules you need to obey as a parent, like wearing underwear around the house.
Suddenly, my perspective on how to communicate changed 180 degrees. I became a purveyor of piety around my child, speaking gently and gracefully both at home and out in public, going so far as to scowl angrily at the sound of a flagrant “fuck” from behind us in line in the supermarket, with a grumpy muttered reminder that children were present.
Without the crutch of cursing to express my strongest emotions, I fell back on those pseudo swears that one learns to use around polite company. Unfortunately, “oh shoot” or “darn it” and especially “fudge” just doesn’t seem to convey the level of inner turmoil one might be feeling the same as “fuck it all, for fucking fuck’s sake.”
Although I felt strongly I was doing the right thing by restraining myself and my language in front of my son and his subsequent brother, I longed for the days during which I could let loose with a steady stream of swear words to articulate my outrage or even mild irritation. Talking clean all the time was restrictive and difficult, and I began to feel like I was wearing a muzzle. In fact, on the rare occasions that I was not accompanied by my children, my mouth became an unfettered source of four-lettered words, cursing so much that my new husband feels his conversational skills have become permanently tainted.
Eventually, through no fault of my own careful self-censorship, my sons became aware of the art of swearing. Whether they heard it out on the playground during school recess or through the faint waves of dialogue drifting up to their rooms from the television downstairs after bedtime, the idea that there were words that were not to be uttered became a fascinating and alluring notion.
“My friend said the ‘s’ word yesterday,” my son would confess darkly over breakfast, waiting expectantly for a look of horror to wash over my face.
“Which one?” I would tease. His eyes would widen. “There’s more than one?” he would ask incredulously.
To my surprise, beyond a sense of mild satisfaction that they had not learned about cursing from me, I felt no outrage or anxiety about the idea of my sons hearing and perhaps, behind my back, repeating words not approved of in polite society as an act of youthful rebellion and anarchy. There were far worse offenses I could imagine them committing, such as bullying or treating peers unfairly. Profanity, as inappropriate as it may be in most public situations, only consists of words designed to shock or scandalize. In fact, cursing in the privacy of one’s own home can be therapeutic, in my opinion. A way to release emotional steam, give voice to frustration and eventually soothe it, perhaps preventing another method of psychological discharge, like violence or physical damage.
Rather than blatant and absolute rules on what may or may not be said, what has become more important to impart on my children is an understanding of time and place. Swearing may increase your popularity in the locker room, but not always in the boardroom. Cursing in front of teachers or grandmas is always a bad idea, but might make you feel better after you stub your toe.
Although I have not returned to my previously flagrant and overly profane way of conversing, I have been known to let an F-bomb fly here or there, when I am especially angry or emotional about something. My boys grin at each other wickedly, reveling in the auditory pleasure that “bad” words bring to their ears. And, as much as I know they would love it if I permitted them to say something more theatrical than “frickin,” for now, I have made the promise to allow them to use more colorful language when they are 16.
Because that’s fucking young enough.