I can remember, when I was young, the weeks in advance of my maternal grandmother’s visits. My mother would say to us, “Now, you remember not to say any bad words while Mimi is here.” That eleventh commandment, issued twice each year, always struck me as odd, given that we weren’t technically allowed to use “bad” words even when our grandmother wasn’t visiting.
Of course, it didn’t always work out as politely as my mother would have it. Invariably, words like “burp” and “fart” and “poop” always surfaced like dead bodies in a river by the time my grandmother had settled into a routine.
My mother, invariably, was horrified. Or at least she feigned to be.
Then one placid afternoon, someone said with terrific emphasis: “$h!t!” Well now, since that expletive did NOT come out of my seven-year-old mouth, and most certainly did not come out of my two-year-old sister’s, it must’ve come out of…my mother’s. Evidently, the dishwasher had overflowed its bounds, and she had slipped and landed on her derriere. Magically, my grandmother, who’d been within earshot, hadn’t died or even fainted. $h!t, I therefore reasoned, was a good and useful word. Dare I say, a beautiful one.
I became, in that moment, a bad-word addict. I used to whisper them when I was young, but now that I’m an adult, I like to say them out loud. Really loud if need be. But I try to use them sparingly, so as to preserve their power, and also to make sure all the non-bad words in my arsenal get their fair use. Of course, I refrain from using them in front of children, and am often successful.
“Any educated, intelligent person has many beautiful words at his or her disposal,” I tell my own children now, in advance of a visit from their grandmother. “Therefore, we do not need to resort to using bad words in front of her.” ƒu©& no, we do not. Not even if they use them in a complete sentence, which, in my writerly estimation, is worthy of a pass.
I have a lovely vocabulary, accumulated over four decades of study and use. But when the going gets tough, or the dishwasher overflows and I slip and fall down on my…assonance, a well-aimed f-bomb is worth more than a thousand other words. Maybe many more. And nothing makes me giggle like hearing my now 94-year-old grandmother reach into the depth of her own early-twentieth-century argot and say–in a whisper so that the children don’t hear–“$h!t.”