Profanity. It has a kind of allure to it, even though you know that using is it crass, and often uncalled for. Yet there’s no getting around it. Sometimes ‘gosh darn it’ is not enough.
I know this because of my childhood growing up around middle class folks with cable who didn’t skimp on the swear words.
By the time I was six, I had an incredibly advanced vocabulary of curse words. I imagine I was not alone in this. It seems that where I grew up, profanity and birdsong were heard in equal measures. I know my father was proficient in it though my mother was less so, and my best friend had a father who was a Marine, so Jeff’s house was a cornucopia of knowledge in regards to picking up interesting turns of phrase.
Yet, somehow, our parents had sheltered us from the biggest of the big, the most profane of all words. And we would have not had an inkling about it if in 1983 ‘A Christmas Story’ wasn’t released.
Sometime in 1984 or 1985, my family sat huddled around our VCR and CRT television set – a massive Sylvania with numerical input instead of the knobs for standard and UHF on the old black and white television. And as we watched the misadventures of Ralphie and his family, we came to the classic scene that everyone remembers. Ralphie’s father blows a tire and in the process, Ralphie tips his hand that he knows a word he ought not. The word. The queen mother of dirty words. The F- – – word.
Mom and dad tried not to make a big deal out of it, and I can’t remember whether or not I asked them directly what the word was. But, what I do remember is asking my older sister. I don’t know why – my sister and I had gone well into the territory where we had discovered we didn’t like each other very much at the time. But, ask her I did, and there was a long conversation that resulted. Most of this conversation was me begging to know what the word was. Her part was a steady repetition of the word ‘no’ which did not start with the letter F and did not have four letters. I had to pester her for what seemed like hours, though when you’re six years old, time has a sense of drawing itself out. I’ll give my sis credit – she was wise not to tell me. Even at six-years old, I knew I could probably recreate the scene and make sure that like Schwartz, she’d pay a steeper fine than I would for popping that word out in front of my parents.
After school ended in 1987 my family took our summer trip to the Delaware shore. We’d decided to stay in Rehoboth that summer, and mom and dad were trying to choose a movie we could all see at the Atlantic. It was not to be though. Mom, dad, my sister, and myself could not agree. I forget what mom and dad went to see, but my sister and I were allotted enough money for two tickets to see Spaceballs. Mom was very concerned. The film was PG-13, and she wasn’t sure it was appropriate. Dad must have made reassurances though, because a couple minutes later we were enjoying the film immensely. It was Star Wars, but funny, and while I didn’t get all of the jokes, I got enough. Dick jokes are the kind of thing little boys pick up early. I didn’t get the joke behind Dot Matrix and Prince Valium – though apparently my sister did.
As we arrived at the end of the film, we reached the threshold. The Spaceballs were in Mega Maid, desperately trying to reverse the self destruct sequence. They were trying everything. And eventually they remember there’s a self destruct cancellation button. Dark Helmet flips up the panel for it and there’s a sign reading ‘out of order.’
And out came the word.
My sister immediately sees my eyes go dark with confusion. She turns to me and says ‘‘That’s the word.’ It was as if we both instantly resumed the conversation from the prior year seamlessly, in the way siblings frequently can. My eyes went wide. I now possessed the secret knowledge – and I’d not be able to use it as leverage against my sister, who had by then become my archnemesis (don’t worry – we’re okay now. Especially with two thirds of a continent between us).
But, I had the word. And there’s nothing more motivated than a child with forbidden knowledge.
And though I knew the word, I only knew its form, its shape, its sound. I had no context to use it other than as exclamation at its time of revelation. I wouldn’t learn the versatility of the word, it’s truest usage, or even when it would actually be appropriate to use that word until later. Looking back on it, it opened up a whole bunch of other words that in turn used that one at their respective roots (it’s a hell of a malleable word). And I’ll admit it: there’s probably few days that roll by that I don’t either say it, or print it in my work. For a word as charged as it is, it’s a common part of my day here in America where tempers run hot and the internet spews profanity faster than any cable channel of my youth. It doesn’t even seem charged or dangerous anymore, though I’m careful (or I try to be) about using it around children.
You know, kids like me at at that young age when I grasped the use of the cutting edge of advanced eight-year old vocabulary.
I suppose there are not bad words – just different ones for different occasions. And probably age groups.
Either way, my vocabulary got advanced.