Cussing, Some Personal Notes*
Georgia and Nana, sittin' in a tree, C-U-S-S-I-N-G.
Well, we weren't, actually. But I had just discovered that seven-year-old Georgia has strong views on the topic. As we spent an afternoon together recently I experienced some mild frustration or exasperation and I said, "Rats!" Georgia looked at me very disapprovingly and said, "Nana!"
You shouldn't say that!
Shouldn't say "rats"? There's nothing bad about "rats." I can say that.
Well, what about "shoot!" Can I say "shoot"?
This was getting me nowhere. I don't know who has been shaping her mind about expletives. I'm pretty sure it isn't her parents. I even asked her brother, Sam, about it later: "Do you consider 'rats!' to be a bad word?" He said no.
I ended the Georgia stalemate by heading upstairs to pee, but as I climbed the steps I said, "Grumph, Georgia! Grumphy-do!" She made no comment. But I was pretty sure "grumph" was okay because it was the word I coined forty years ago to express myself in front of my own children.
So what was going on with "rats" and "shoot"? Several answers occur to me. The most obvious is that it was not the words but the tone of voice, the actual expression of frustration that she thought of as "bad". "Rats", after all is not a euphemism for some blasphemous or vulgar phrase. It isn't like "gee whiz" or "golly gee" or "crikey!", which are related to Jesus Christ. It isn't like frickin' or freakin'—or my favourite of all time: Gulley Jimson's "For cough! For cough!" It's just "rats"!
I couldn't persuade her. But we'll revisit the conversation when she's a little older. Her views may change.
During my own childhood, cussing was so far from being allowed that I didn't hear certain words until I was in my 20s and I didn't use them until I was in my 30s. When I was 32, for example, my sister Sari, then 28, said "sh*t" in front of me. I was mildly amazed that she was not immediately struck by lightning. But that was the beginning of my allowing myself to say "sh*t" when it was appropriate (fairly often at the time, as I remember).
Then I read a more-or-less Buddhist story about someone who realized that if he had the habit of saying "sh*t" and if he were in an accident and exclaimed "Sh*t!" in response to the accident, then that might be his last earthly word—and the word that would resonate with him as he entered eternity, or his new life, or his face-to-face with a creator. Deciding that shit was an unseemly word for the circumstances, he trained himself not to use it.
That impressed me. So over the years I tailored my expletives to less vulgar ones—though I can still use "f*ck" to great effect, even greater because I use it so seldom.
My mother's expletives reflected the innocent Catholic girl she had once been—and pretty much stayed, in many ways. Under extreme provocation (six kids, remember?) she would shout "Damn-damn-double-damn, the devil's out of hell!" That was as bad as it got.
"I don't give a tinker's dam" was also one of her expressions. Apparently tinkers, as they repaired pans, made use of a d—a-m to keep the molten tin from spilling. So a tinker's dam was an actual implement.
Sometimes she would say, "For the love of Pete!", altered, of course from "for the love of God." "Mike" was occasionally invoked instead of Pete.
We, her sassy tribe, would invariably call her on it. "Who's Pete?" "Do you mean Pete the Tramp?" (Pete the Tramp was a comic strip figure of the time.) More likely, Pete was St. Peter and Mike was St.Michael the Archangel.
"Fer cryin' out loud!" took the place of the unutterable "For Christ's sake" in nice households like ours.
So limited was my experience in cussing that when in my 20s I still wasn't sure of the meaning of "sh*t." Was it #1 or #2? Sometimes children need to know official definitions.
For the time being, I will be monitoring myself in front of Georgia. Not only shall I avoid sh*t, f*ck, c*nt, pr*ck, d*ck, and all modified references to deities, but I also will have to find a substitute for "rats!" Maybe "Oh, mice!" Not very satisfying to say, but perhaps Georgia will accept it.
*Note that in this essay, asterisks are used not just to signal a footnote, as here, but as vowel substitutes so as to protect the innocent. This bowdlerizing was recommended by my business manager, DinoVino WineScribe. If you object, take it up with him.