This is a story my Mom told me when I was in high school. We were always a one car family, so when she needed the car, she’d drive Dad to work then pick him up at quitting time. She’d sometimes find herself talking to my Dad’s co-workers while he finished up a job. One day, she happened to mention how pleased she was that he never swore at home. Their response? Frank? Never swear? You’ve got to be kidding. I had never heard Dad use anything stronger than hell or damn … or, under dire circumstances, a Jesus H. Christ, which always elicited THAT Look from Mom. But as was the case with many men back then … he had a different vocabulary among other men than in public. There were, of course, men who used those words no matter who was around. Mom knew where they all lived and strongly suggested I avoid those places. I still managed to pick up a few choice curse words, though … and followed in the hallowed tradition of using them with the guys but never in front of the girls. And never at home. I had friends who had their mouths washed out with soap or pepper sauce on the tongue for swearing. Dad was more direct … a quick backhand got the point across.
Times have certainly changed. I don’t have to be out among the peeps for long to hear people … men and women … boys and girls … using words that would have gotten me grounded. Certain inappropriate words have propagated to public usage … SHIT HAPPENS bumper stickers and FUCLA T-shirts at UCSC-UCLA football games. It’s pretty common to hear an entire basketball crowd chanting, Bullshit, bullshit after a bad referee’s call. Movies use virtually any word, sometimes in profusion … The Wolf of Wall Street used a word that used to be the apex of cursing 569 times and TV is rapidly catching up. Sports talk guys on the radio use low grade curse words like pissed off and ass with regularity. Me? I seem squarely caught between generations. In a business meeting full of men I engage a substantially more colorful vocabulary than when women are present. Certain words that once were banned have slipped into my everyday vocabulary … if I drop something and it breaks, I’m likely to say, Shit. Wrong me severely, and I might say, Screw you … and on a bad day, I might upgrade that. I don’t swear in front of children and I hate to hear people swearing indiscriminately in public. I try not to take the Lord’s name … any of the Lord’s names … in vain. I’m a Situational Swearer, a Conditional Curser. I think books and theater and films are better when they use realistic street language but if they go beyond a certain point, I’ll say, That’s excessive or unnecessary.
So here it is, Top Sites Tuesday #249 and I’m ruminating about Curses. Consider this paragraph Thought Number One. Why are perfectly good words considered curses? Of course, certain words like hell and damn are so regarded because Go to Hell and Damn You are actually curses … of the worst sort, if you are religiously inclined. I once asked my Dad, Why is son-of-a-bitch a bad word, Dad? It’s because it’s saying someone’s mother is a dog, he said. In an era of Mama Jokes, shouldn’t it be removed from the curse list? Maybe not … although dogs are more popular than ever, calling a woman a bitch can still be risky (even though a woman having a bad day may describe herself as bitchy). Why is shit a curse word but feces … and poo-poo, for that matter … not? Why are nicknames for body part taboo, particularly nicknames for certain female body parts? What makes certain curse words worse than others? Why do some words come into common usage while others remain verboten?
I was in Target the other day and passed a Mom shopping for shoes with her little girl. Mom held up a cute pair of pink Converse and little Heather responded, Those suck, Mom, holding up a pair of silver glittery high-tops. I like these. Mom didn’t even blink. You suck … this sucks … so-and-so sucks has become a routine part of our vocabulary, perhaps more that any other formerly inappropriate phrase. I have to admit, I use it regularly and I hardly flinched when little Heather used it either. I found an article on Slate.com by Seth Stevenson titled Suck It Up that defends the word sucks as a nearly perfect statement of dislike bordering on abhorrence. I agree. But then the article goes on to suggest that You Suck was never REALLY a curse word, that it’s derived from other less sexual origins than I recall. No less a source than the Urban Dictionary says, The early Jazz musicians would say that a guy could really “Blow” if he had a good sound when playing the horn. If he couldn’t play very well then they would say that he was “Sucking” on that horn. That’s where the term “Suck” as being something bad came from. He plays that horn so poorly that he must be sucking on it. He doesn’t blow, he sucks. Seriously? I never said, You suck in front of my Dad … or my Mom … and it wasn’t because they didn’t like jazz. We all knew what it meant and that the sucking didn’t involve a trumpet. Of course ten-year-old Heather doesn’t know that but some day, she’ll figure it out. Which leads to Thought Number Two: That’s exactly what gives the phrase that edge we need sometimes. And for the most part, that’s why we curse in the first place. And why, if we overdo it, it loses its power in our language.
That’s what I think. How about you? And whether you agree or not, please push my button … gently … to make me Number One on Top Sites Tuesday #249.
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