A Godfather's History of Cursing by Joe Harless
As my friends start to become parents, my wife and I have started to attend social gatherings put on for their small children. We find ourselves as the honored guests at birthday parties and play dates, sometimes arranged by mothers who send out email invitations written in the voices of their children. I find this both cute and creepy.
As we have no children, we typically get gang-pressed into chores at these events. I'm multitalented in this area, helping our friends prepare food, sneak large presents into the garage and keep the kids entertained when they aren't diving on a stuffed toy or spilling something on the brand new rug.
I enjoy these chores; anything I can do to keep the parents in a good humor is, I believe, the best thing for all of us. My wife, currently a YMCA director and a substitute teacher, accepts any task that keeps her away from the children for a few minutes. Kids are wonderful, she says, but you lose your enthusiasm for them when you are surrounded by the unwashed hordes of first graders six days a week. I share her logic, so we invariably both wind up sitting at a table frosting cupcakes or packing goodie bags.
My other chief duty at these events is to watch my language around the virgin ears of the little ones, a task that can be very difficult.
In our everyday lives, my wife and I both curse with a regularity that would have horrified my mother 15 years ago when I first discovered the more colorful aspects of the English language. Back then, the transition of what was considered to be the acceptable levels of cursing in our age group was staggering for me, like riding your bike past the end of the street and finding there were more neighborhoods to explore.
Words like "shut up" and "crap" would have gotten you sent to the corner a few years earlier. Now, at the wise and all-knowing age of 10, the word "damn" was just the minimal requirement of acceptable cursing with your friends. It was an amazing discovery. The frustration we sometimes felt with life could now be more accurately expressed with just a sprinkling of the bad words.
We used it liberally at first, the perfect tool for any conversation. My friend, who had just received a bad grade in science, could now properly vent his dissatisfaction about it during lunch.
"Can't believe I only got a fucking 'D' on that test!" he'd say. "What the hell?"
Do tell, I might have said.
"Fucking teacher doesn't understand anything! Motherfucker!"
Fucking A, I would reply. I had to get my two cents' worth of cursing into the conversation or risk being ostracized or, much worse, appear unhip.
"Damn right!" he'd say. Then we'd throw back a carton of milk and commiserate until the bell rang.
We all marveled at the joy of cursing, saying things that accurately framed our emotional feelings while shocking adults when they heard the naughty words shoot out of our little mouths with all the subtlety of a fire hose during a five-alarm blaze. Punishments were rendered and certain movies were temporarily suspended from our viewing pleasure but we didn't care; we'd just be more careful in the future.
Cursing started to lose its flavor for some in middle school. Kids with stricter religious beliefs either never started cursing or gave it up cold turkey, making the rest of us feel awkward around them whenever we spoke. Some of them would stare at you when you did curse in much the same way that a non-smoker would make a show of coughing around a lit cigarette, and their stare said "I do not approve and you will stop now, or I will continue to be obnoxious."
Bolder people would tell them to fuck off. I would just blush and stop talking.
Soon the words barely registered any kind of reaction from anyone but the hardcore "no cursing" crowd, and even they were nice enough to stop whining about it. I soon had carte blanche to say just about anything in front of my folks, though the f-bomb still warranted the occasional stern look from mom.
I didn't think that was fair. Dad got to use it all the time when he was working on the house.
"That's because his aim with the hammer isn't what it used to be," she'd say.
Yeah, I'd say, but when he's using a level?
I won eventually, though I think she just gave in due to sheer exhaustion of the topic rather than my debate skills.
Cursing was a second language all through high school and college, where I learned how to curse in a variety of ways before entering the work force. By the time I graduated college I could curse in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Gaelic and Mandarin. I took two semesters of Hebrew for my foreign language credit and the only thing I can remember is how to tell a person they aren't pretty. In the masculine form. Mom was very proud.
I also find it amusing that my friends, the same people who would stay up all night drinking and cursing a few years ago, have since adopted the use of safe words such as "darn," "dang it" and, heaven help us, "phooey" around their kids. I agree they shouldn't encourage their kids to start cursing by regularly saying them, but should we ever get the chance to sit down and have an adult conversation again, their brains might be permanently hard-wired to the usage of safe words.
So I worry, until one of the adults in the kitchen drops a plate full of cookies.
I smile. There's still hope.