A Way with Words

  • Barbarella

At no time is freedom of speech more precious than when a man hits his thumb with a hammer. — Marshall Lumsden

"Dododummyshutup,” said my friend Joe the sommelier. His cheeks reddened, corroborating the statement he’d made moments before — that he considered the silly huddle of children’s words profane. He rested his hands on the bar between us and said, “My sister would call me that. It’s a combination of the three worst words we knew as kids that, when combined, created a super-expletive. Even now, if she calls me that, it hurts because I know it means she’s really mad at me. And every once in a while, I’ll think it to myself if somebody leaves me a wretched tip. It makes me feel better and makes me think of my sister.”

Joe, whom we routinely visit for chats and drinks at Kensington Grill, pivoted to tend to other customers and then returned to refill my wine glass. “I find it hard to believe those were the worst three words you guys knew,” I said. “Sounds like you grew up in a sheltered household.”

I recalled a story my mother told me about how she and my father, as young parents, entertained themselves by teaching my eldest sister, Jane, to say “damn.” “It was so funny for us to hear such a small person curse,” Mom said with a chuckle that revealed she still found humor in it. “But when we went to visit your grandmother and Jane said it in front of her,” Mom continued, “I was mortified. That’s when we stopped encouraging her to say bad words.”

While sitting at the bar, I’d taken a call from Jane; it was my overhearing her five-year-old daughter in the background saying “Oh, crap” that sparked the conversation about kiddie curse words. “You curse now, though, right?” I asked Joe.

“Oh, yeah, all the time,” he said, though I had trouble picturing him uttering anything racier than “aw, shucks!”

“The way Barb curses, you’d think I was living with a sailor,” said David, earning himself a playful punch on the arm.

“I doubt there are any sailors who swear as often as I do,” I said after dropping the brow I’d raised at my man. “But give me a break, both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn, where cursing is more a cornerstone of the dialect than it is an intention to offend.”

Despite my claim that my family practiced word-egalitarianism, I could remember the day I learned some words were “bad.” I had just turned five and was sitting beside my two-year-old sister on my parents’ bed, watching my mother fold laundry. On a whim, I decided to test drive a phrase I’d picked up from one or both of my parents — something they repeated often in a friendly, teasing tone: “Fuck off.”

“What did you just say?” Mom’s face had been transformed. She set down the shirt she’d been folding and gave me her full attention. I liked that. “Don’t you ever say that again. That’s a dirty word,” she said. “It’ll make your mouth so dirty I’ll have to wash it out with soap.” This was a new concept, and not much of a threat, as the word “soap” conjured nothing but happy, clean imagery. Still, I got the impression that Mom was not pleased. She returned to her folding.

I waited for what seemed like an hour (but was more like ten seconds) before intoning the same phrase, directed at my unassuming kid sister. I presumed incorrectly that my mother, not three feet away, was incapable of hearing my stage whisper. Mom acted swiftly; she scooped me up and propped me on the bathroom sink and shoved a bar of Ivory in my mouth. I held it between my lips, then, I dared a lick, recoiling as I learned the taste of soap was in no way as pleasant as its smell.

In my adolescence, Mom’s discipline waned as a result of my determination to acquire freedom of speech. I began with an innocuous-enough word. When Mom asked me not to say it again, I told her I was merely referring to the small songbird when I had called my friend “a tit.”

“You know, you curse much more when you’re on the phone with your family,” David said after Joe had stepped away to mix a few cocktails.

“That’s because I feel comfortable with them,” I said. After a moment’s thought, I added, “And like I said, it’s a dialect.”

David doesn’t swear...okay, so he drops the occasional F-bomb, like when he sliced off part of his thumb while cooking or burned his other thumb on a bulb in the refrigerator that had no business being that hot. But for him, curse words don’t come naturally; it would sound awkward for him to bust one of George Carlin’s infamous seven. I attribute this to his formative years.

“I would be shocked if my mother cursed,” David said.

“I once coaxed a ‘bitch’ out of her,” I bragged. I didn’t tell him that I’d had to voice the word for his mother first, to let her know it was okay, or that as the word came out of her mouth she looked as if she was being forced to eat a bug. She said it, that’s all that mattered, and I took full credit. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cursing. They’re just words.”

“If I hear someone talking and every other sentence is f-this or f-in’ that, I can’t help but think that person is unintelligent,” David said. “Because an intelligent person would have the vocabulary and creativity to be more eloquent.”

I sipped my wine and pondered my stupidity and sudden urge to utter an expletive, the latter of which sparked a memory. “What about that article we just read about the study they did in Britain?”

In the article, we’d learned that the psychology department of a British university found that swearing helps people withstand pain. Something about a naughty word accesses the right side, or emotional area of the brain, whereas normal language engages the left. For the study, participants were asked to submerge their hands in ice water. Those who were allowed to recite their chosen expletive were able to keep their hands submerged up to twice as long as those who were told to repeat an innocent adjective. I thought about my emotional connections to bad words, beginning with the soap-tasting incident: a mixture of power, shame, and exhilaration.

“Cursing makes me feel good,” I said. “And now there’s scientific proof that I’m not alone.”

“Yeah, well, I can think of several feel-good things I wouldn’t do in front of other people,” said David.

“I guess that’s the difference between you and me, beh-beh,” I said. Then, to show David I wasn’t swayed by his argument, I said, “Hey, Joe. This wine is the shit.” Both men rolled their eyes at me as I giggled into my glass.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Hi Barbarella Love the article on words. I remember going with my Mom to her best friend Judy's home to visit she had lots of different things in her home that expressed her humer. One thing that caught my eye and has stuck with me every since,was an 8x10 frame on hundred ways to use the word [email protected]K. Later in life I was suspended from school for saying "iF yUo Cee Kaye tell her I said Hi" everyone else thought it was funny. Like you I hold back my favorite words for those who don't get offended, and tell my Granddaughters they can't say these special words until they are eighteen. I believe it's how you use a word that hurts or may offend. "I hate you" is much more uglier then the word [email protected]k. Thanks for the great article and have a great [email protected]*king day. LOL Shawn Huston

Great article, Barb. Reminds me of a year ago when my mother first saw my MySpace page. Her exact words? "Why do you feel the need to be so crass and piggish?" Keep in mind that this is the same woman who would yell the words, "JESUS F***ING CHRIST!" day after day during my childhood.

Here's what she(and anyone who views my profile will see)saw:

"I'm a very intelligent,opinionated guy. I say what's on my mind and don't really give a flying f if I offend you. I see the world today drowning in apathy. It's my job to change that. I open up dialogue to many,many topics of conversation. I've been told that I'm very closed-minded. This may be true to some extent but I see just the opposite. I'm 33 years old. I'm very set in my ways,lifestyle and opinions. If you think you can change my mind on a certain topic,give it a shot. I may just surprise you. I'm human and as such I'm like the quintessential shape shifter. They say people like me who use profanities aren't smart enough to come up with alternate words. I feel so fin' discombobulated when I hear that. To me,f is like cat. A word. If you keep opening my door and continualy don't close it,I'm going to get pissed and shout"CLOSE THE FIN' DOOR YOU FIN' RETARD!". Why? Because you understand the word F in an angry tone. You notice it. If I shout"CLOSE THE DOOR FOR THE UMPTEENTH THOUSANDTH TIME!",that just makes both of us look like retards. You for leaving the door open over and over again and me for expecting you to close it."

words pete, yep words sticks an stones huh? now, i am 65 yea 65 pitiful eh. i dont understand life as easily i used too, untill i look in the mirror. but a few years back kidney stones were suspected sooooooo yep they had ta go take a look geez i am tellin ya i invented about 300 new words to express my pain not one was inflamatory but very creative expressions idf i may say so; all very loudly shouted...the doc thanked me for my "control" ha there was no control it really helped to holler, i then said "s***" "i had no idea they were that large" as she showed me one she removed... a few more dips in my bladder and we could have played jacks with em but luckily? surgery got em all. sometimes creativity can serve the purpose and not offend sensibilitys we all have em ya know. and barbarella i love the kensinton grill also......but no way ta get home since i moved, on public trans, unless i empty my debit card for a taxi. i'll be an EARLY BIRD like the rest of the old farts damn opps darn.......

Shawne, I agree - "hate" was one of the few forbidden words in my family, and to this day, my father will say, "Hate's a strong word," if he hears someone say it, even about something inane, like, "I hate these chips." I always try to rephrase when preparing to voice my dislike of something.

Pete, and Jerome, glad you liked the story! I must add, I am my most creative with language, in terms of Shakespearean inventions, when I'm irritated by another driver on the road. ;)

This morning I was at CVS. I was also wearing a shirt similar to this that I bought a couple of years ago. http://www.foulmouthshirts.com/ click on where it says OFFENSIVE T-Shirts and scroll down 5 rows-2nd from the right This old man passed me and said, "Nice shirt". Luckily he caught me having a good morning.

It's interesting how in some cultures, children using "adult" words is just not an issue.

In Czech, it's not at all uncommon to hear little kids saying "hovno", "pico", "do prdele", and so on.

Nobody bats an eye...

That is interesting, Fred. The same could be said for children drinking alcohol (as many do in Europe, wine with meals) or being exposed to sexual content/nudity. Seems when those children grow up (and this is an assumption, I haven't checked any stats, just relying on what little I know of psychology), they might not be as likely to binge drink or become oversexed by virtue of sheer novelty (see last year's headlines from Britain's local papers about the surge of young adult binge-drinkers and random hook-ups).

Barb, I think the "helicoptering" of American parents is more damaging to kids than anything else. It makes them weak and incapable of overcoming obstacles.

Add religion into the mix, with all the pointless guilt and stories of how they are "born bad" and have to be saved by an invisible friend or the angry sky daddy will burn them forever...well, you get the picture.

How in the world is a woman's bare breast seen as somehow harming children? I've been told that as an infant, I was exposed to bare breasts every few hours. Worse, I actually used those breasts to feed myself!

Only religion can explain this stupidity. Countries with high rates of atheism, Sweden and the Czech Republic are examples I know from personal experience, have zero problem with bare breasts. Somehow the kids there seem to grow up without any trauma from this exposure.

Back to language. How can anyone consider certain combinations of vowels and consonants as inherently bad? Even more funny is how the exact same set of phonemes can be "bad" in one place and good in another.

An example is the German, "Kunde", which means customer. The same word in Czech is a "vulgar" word for female genitalia.

So it's hilarious when you're in Prague, and you hear a shop assistance say as some German tourists walk in, "Oh, look, it's another "kunde".

Another example from Czech is when people say, "fakt yo" to agree with each other. Literally, it means "yes, that's a fact". But the way they pronounce it, "fahk yoh", is disturbing to monolingual English speakers who assume it's directed at them in an insulting manner.


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader