I’m a Grown Man, and I’m Uncomfortable Dropping F-Bombs
How words affect our relationships, our environment, and ourselves
When I was six or seven years old, I said the word “darn” one day and my grandfather reprimanded me.
He was thoroughly religious, an inveterate churchgoer, the sort of man who spreads the gospel in the Food Lion checkout line. My mother says he knew the Bible better than any minister. I tried to explain to him that “darn” isn’t a bad word.
“Yes, it is,” he said in his rolling mountain accent. “When you say that word, you’re saying the other word in your mind, and that’s what God hears.”
Kids grow up being told certain words are “bad” and that to utter them is “swearing” or “cursing” — or, if you’re from the South like me, “cussing.” Yet we’re never told why.
In that moment, I realized cussing was not just a thing adults do that kids can’t, like staying up past nine or eating black walnut ice cream for dinner.
In that moment, I understood the power of words, spoken and unspoken.
Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, complained in a 1697 essay about how much the English language was changing. Grammar was changing. Spelling was changing. About 12,000 words had been added, many imported from other languages, especially French.
People worried this “Early Modern English,” as linguists call it, was too unstable. They saw the new words as unruly, unrefined, barbarous.
One class of additions made Defoe especially indignant: swear words. He saw them as a “Frenzy of the Tongue, a Vomit of the Brain,” and as impertinent “as if a man shou’d Fart before a Justice or talk Bawdy before the Queen.”
Contrary to Defoe’s concerns, cussing does have rules. It does have protocols. For instance, you wouldn’t say “What the bitch?” or “I don’t give a hell.”
You can fall on your ass, not your asshole.
You can call someone a “shit” but not a “son of a shit.”
Abso-fuck-lutely? No, it’s abso-fuckin-lutely, you ass-tongue. (I made up that last one. Like it?)
Yet within these boundaries, there is room for idiosyncrasy. People are weird about cussing — about taboos in general.
My fiancée says “commode” instead of “toilet” and “bathroom tissue” rather than “toilet paper.” Why? “They sound nicer to me.” (This from a woman who says “fuck” more than the characters in a Tarantino film.)
In elementary school, I knew a pair of twins, Melissa and Michelle, whose parents forbade them to say “lie.” I don’t mean they couldn’t call people liars. I mean they couldn’t utter the word L-I-E.
Insults, too, are confusing. “Cunt,” a body part, seems less derogatory than “bitch,” an indictment of behavior. Yet any woman’ll tell you the worst thing she can be called is the C-word.
“Suck my dick” is another puzzling one. If it’s a put-down for me to say that to a guy, wouldn’t it mock me as well for inviting the act? And if I say the words to, oh, Kate Upton, it’s not an insult at all — it’s a plea.
And how is “motherfucker” something bad? My father is one. My grandfather was one. My fiancée has kids, so sooner or later, I’ll be one too.
I don’t feel that strongly about cussing. I don’t hate it. I just don’t do it. Mostly.
I am the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. As pastors go, my father is pretty liberal. He voted for Hillary, accepts women deacons, supports marriage equality, and has derided “fundamentalists” for more than 50 years.
Yet my growing up was still circumscribed. If I got in trouble at school, or wiggled too much in church, or was seen entering an R-rated movie even when I was old enough, my parents would get a phone call. At school, I wasn’t invited to parties, raves, or house eggings. Kids would stop talking when they saw me, covering their mouths and saying, “Oops! I can’t cuss around you.”
I’ve written before about why, at the age of 46, I have never tasted alcohol. In the Book of Luke, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son, the future John the Baptist, who “shall drink neither wine nor strong drink.” Perhaps my abstinence was similarly preordained.
If I were the cussing type, I would struggle with the paucity of options.
Cussing feels the same. My brain knows bad words are just words, those painless counterpoints to sticks and stones. Yet in my heart, or my soul, or wherever ineffable decisions are made, they are simply not to be said.
I do say them. On occasion. But it feels unnatural, like I’m an actor or puppet. It’s like I’m saying to those kids who shunned me, “How you like me now?”
If I were the cussing type, I would struggle with the paucity of options. There are only nine or so bad words, depending on your definition of “bad.”
I’m a writer, and words rivet me. They enthrall me. In high school, when I came across an unfamiliar word, I wrote it and its definition on a note card, a practice I picked up from my father. We have hundreds of cards between us. I still consult them. Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word,” and to that, I say, balderdash, baloney, and bushwa.
So excuse me if I don’t want to keep saying “damn” and “hell” over and over. Life is saltier than network TV.
(Really, it doesn’t get more pedestrian than “hell.” The word is in the Bible, for crying out loud, plus the Baptist Hymnal. My father said it from the pulpit. As an adult, I’ve said it myself and felt a frisson each time, like I was exploiting a loophole.)
Given my background, you probably think I cringe at “goddamn,” but I don’t. Not really.
In one monologue, Jerry Seinfeld says that milk expiration dates aren’t suggestions or approximations. Instead, “They brand it right into the carton. Ssssssssss. There’s your goddamn date!” I laugh every time I hear that.
It’s “shit” I cringe at, mostly because, like a lot of people, I cringe at actual excrement. Urine doesn’t bother me, so why can’t I say “piss” instead? It’s interchangeable with “shit” in all but the most literal expressions.
- Let’s play the piss out of this song.
- I can’t stand Rush Limbaugh. He’s full of piss.
- “This Code Red of yours makes me want to beat the piss out of someone!” — Tom Cruise to Kevin Bacon in A Few Good Men
In 1997, I noticed my wife of three years spending more and more time with a co-worker named Kenneth. He had been our friend, going bowling with us and hanging at our house. Now the two of them were strolling through the mall or deep in conversation or sharing an ice cream sundae. Without me.
Kenneth was an open guy. Self-deprecating. Moony. Each time he talked about his busted-up love life, my wife tried to help him. Eventually, she was his love life. I went to stay with my parents for a bit, as a trial separation. He swooped in and was sleeping with her within weeks.
Still, I thought I could save things. I sent flowers, wrote letters, and called her over and over. She rebuffed me each time. Finally, she couldn’t take my entreaties any longer. We argued, and she used a word I had never heard her use: “Fuck off.”
That mouth. I had kissed that mouth. Fed it. Talked to it. Created a private language with it.
Speech is a habit, one so deep-seated that sudden changes in it, like any change in behavior, can be symptoms of a larger concern. I knew what this alteration meant: I had lost her. Forever.
Talk about power.
Words affect our relationships. Our environment. Ourselves.
The ones we don’t use have similar strength. They can mark us as outsiders. Make us seem brave or picky or namby-pamby. They can prompt questions, fueling our defensiveness.
Or they can reveal our beliefs. My fiancée says “fuck” a lot but rarely “damn.” Why? “Fucking isn’t wrong,” she says. “Everyone does it. Damning, though, is something only God should do.”
I grew up not cussing, and there’s no compelling reason to start now. I don’t think people who do cuss are horrible or vice-filled or hell-bound. I just don’t like to do it myself.
That doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in sometimes doing it. Once, I was critiquing a short story written by a friend. In the story, a character used the word “screw” — as in, “I don’t care what that bitch says. I’ll screw anybody I want.” (The guy was kind of a dick.)
I liked the story. It was interesting and well written. But I hated that word “screw.” It didn’t belong. This guy, I remember thinking, wouldn’t use a euphemism. (This is what my grandfather was talking about, though he didn’t call it that.) He wouldn’t say some mealymouthed substitute like “screw.”
He would definitely, definitely drop the F-bomb.