I was raised proper, by which I mean a proper appreciation of language in all its splendor. Our family did not exclusively fawn over the most flashy words, nor the most humble. We took delight in using descriptors of all stripes, including those reserved for the bawdy house. Within the panoply of adjectives and expletives, I learned at my mama’s knee how best to decry, offend, verbally defenestrate.
We practice our art with caution but devotion. It’s too easy to rely upon the ugly but poignant “Fuckwad,” so we reach for more interesting ways to express distaste. “Blithering, emo, wuss-tastic fuckwad” is, to my ears far more interesting, and importantly, more precise. “What is the fuckwad doing?” Blithering. It’s all right there, sewn up in a tidy package. “What kind of fuckwad is he?” An emo fuckwad, who aspires to such far reaches of wussiness that he’s wuss-tastic.
I guess it’s always been this way. I got damned to hell by my best friend in second grade because I said “damn,” a bit of irony that was lost on me since I neither knew what “damn” meant, nor what this place called “hell” was all about. Was it near Mount Olympus? Did Zeus live there? If so, I really wanted a date with Cupid, the Roman hunk of “Cupid and Psyche” fame and Eros’ doppelganger. I was only eight, but I knew hotties when I read about them. Plus, he had wings. That’s pretty awesome.
Once my son Milo was born, I valiantly razed my language to the realm of modestly offensive, and then further into the dull confines of Vanilla Soft Serve Ice Cream once we belatedly realized that Milo had a real knack for language too. Instead of wusstastic-ness, I have become enamored of completely antiquated charmers like “Sweet Fancy Brown!” and “Good grief!” I don’t say “Gosh” or “Gee whiz,” but the words “Criminy,” “Dangit” and “Oh, crumb,” feature often in my mild expletives.
And let’s face it, expletives help. You drop your groceries: what do you do? Thank the heavens for giving you one more challenge in your already ridiculous day? No. You curse, blurt, spit, and then you pick the frozen strawberries up and move on. If I couldn’t do that, those groceries on the ground might just send me around the twist, and I would lie down next to them tearfully, wondering how I used to manage to get through my day at all.
But I’m not stupid. Not very, anyway.
I know that there’s a time and a place for everything, and first grade is probably not the place for a seven-year-old to be yelling “Fuck off, ______!” at his friend who had just told him to go to hell. I realize this is probably a little raw for the playground out of the mouths of babes. I really do.
So after telling Milo that it was inappropriate and he wasn’t allowed to say words like that, I created a mutual disciplinary response to the elegant but perhaps misplaced use of “Fuck.” (I mean, syntactically, Milo nailed it: “Fuck off!” was the perfect response to someone who just told him to go to hell, and if he was fifteen it wouldn’t have raised any alarms.)
So I created the “Potty-Mouth Pot,” the bank into which we must pay our debt to the gods of expletives and curses. It’s a blown glass jar displaying our shame for all to see: Milo owes twenty-five cents for every use of the span of “grown-up words” (which linguists might argue are a badge of the truly immature); I owe a dollar.
Why the disparity to the potty-mouth pot? Because to teach the lesson well, I figured that we needed to identify who was winning the contest and who was losing. Each dollar bill was so much easier to separate from the quarters my son reluctantly placed in the jar that we could, by taking a quick glance, estimate the winner.
This is also known as “hubris.”
The first day went predictably. Chastened by my admonishment but also soothed by the admission that I too suffered the curse of cursing, Milo and I paid our first debts to the pot together. He was testing the boundaries of our agreement. Did “Damn” fit the requirements? Yes, but “Dam-age” did not. He paid a quarter for “Damn” but not “Dam,” and he was terribly proud of finding the workaround.
I symbolically paid my first dollar into the kitty. (“What’s the kitty?” he asked. Same thing as the “pot” in poker. Now we’ve introduced gambling terms.) Even though I hadn’t said a single blue word, I felt I should make the point that I would be fair and honorable in the contest, that he could count on me for holding up my side of the bargain. If he had to pay, so did I.
The next dollar I shelled out was when I was on the phone: I said “Damn” to someone and Milo shrieked “YOU OWE A DOLLAR! YOU OWE A DOLLAR!” I gamely paid up, neatly folding my dollar and placing it in the jar.
Then he said “Hell,” and I had to wrestle him for the quarter he was loathe to part with. He cried as he let it tinkle to the bottom of the jar, separated from its mate by only two single bills, and Milo begged me to change the rules of engagement. His bereft display confirmed my impromptu but cleverly crafted lesson from which he was suffering the consequences in a real and tangible way.
Depressed over the loss of a third quarter, Milo bemoaned our arrangement to his father as he was going to bed one night.
“Don’t worry,” Lars said. “Mom will lose. I guarantee it.”*
Aside from the fact that I married the male version of Mata Hari, this information was enough to give Milo a renewed sense of purpose and hope.
He mastered his reliance upon potty words with the zeal of a convert. After his third quarter went in the pot, he was done. Not a single verboten word has passed his lips, though he has danced playfully around acceptable substitutes.
I have not been so fortunate. It turns out it’s mitochondrial. While I have, in general, turned an about-face on the real dirt-bombs, I seem incapable of eradicating the basic building blocks of interesting language: damn, hell, crap are so intrinsically bonded with my molecular material that they are woven into the fiber of my tongue. I cannot, apparently, get rid of them. Like herpes, or gout: there for the duration, like it or not.
My son has learned valuable lessons, too. He has learned the skill of secondary hearing, which eluded him until now. I used to beg, scream, shout, dance in front of him, block the television, pull his socks off–whatever it would take to get his attention. Now I don’t need to worry. If he’s engrossed so deeply in a book that I could throw a hockey puck at his head without him flinching, all I have to do is drop my guard and talk like my DNA tells me to and I have Milo’s undivided attention. “Potty-mouth!” he shouts with delight as if being revived from a coma. “You just said a bad word! Pay up, MOM!”
He has three quarters in the bottom of the Potty-Mouth Pot. I have at least thirty bucks in there. But who’s counting?
Don’t answer that.
*Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not even the star player on the potty-mouth stage. Grandma, from who I learned everything I know, talks like a trucker with a fatal case of gutter-tongue. Even now, with her adorable Grandma walk and her devotion to baking holiday cookies, she blasts the room with language dripping with so much ooze it’s amazing people let her into nice places. Colorful, descriptive, eloquent and utterly demented, she shames all pretenders to the potty-mouth crown with their pedestrian lack of creativity.
So I found it both charming and ridiculous that after Grandma heard about my struggle to reign in my gutter mouth, she paid up one lowly quarter to Milo in the interest of making a good impression…even though she had outshone my every utterance in front of the boy in two short hours over dinner.