Four Letter Words
Pauline was clear about the ground rules for the essays. No swearing. So of course I’m going to push the envelope by immediately composing an incisive academic thesis examining the etymological and sociological implications of taboo verbiage in occidental culture, ‘cause that’s just the kind of gal I am.
My husband and I cuss like sailors. I won’t deny it. We have been trying to put a lid on it since our son was born, but it’s just another one of those bad habits you get into after years of living together just the two of you, like picking tomato slices directly out of the salad bowl with your fingers at the table or sleeping buck naked.
I swear because I was brought up in a proudly swearing American home. I was probably in my early teens before I realized that our grand city’s football team was named The Bears, not Those Godd***ed Sons-a-B*****s. (That all ended with Iron Mike, a hero at our house.) All of us cussed, and as long as we didn’t offend Grandma or the neighbors it was never an issue. Recently my son asked where his dad was, and I casually replied that he was out getting the piece of s**t car stereo fixed. My baby, who had until this moment never strung more than two words together, decided that this was an appropriate moment to make a huge developmental leap, and spent the afternoon wandering the house repeating to himself “piece of sit caw steweo, Mamma? Piece of sit caw steweo, Mamma?” which had me lunging for the telephone for a tearful conference with my mom as to why I am not fit to parent (there is a long list of reasons why I am not fit to parent, including items such as: When I learned I was pregnant, I immediately went out and bought a white couch; and I ate all of my son’s Easter candy … two years in a row.)
My mom tried to calm me down with the story about how once she was out driving with me as a preschooler standing in the middle of the backseat (it was the seventies … who bothered with child safety restraints?), got cut off by another car and responded with that low hiss that responsible parents make when they really want to let it rip but have young children within hearing range, only to hear me pipe up from the back, “Did you see that a**hole, Mom?” She finished the story by saying, “So, you see? You grew up to be perfectly normal.” Which got me sobbing even more since I did not grow up to be perfectly normal, I grew up to be the kind of mother who teaches her two year old four letter words before he has even mastered “Please” and “Thank you”.
My husband swears because he uses power tools.
In my years of living here in Italy and speaking Italian, I have become fascinated by how the definition of profanity is so rigidly dictated by different cultures. What makes hair curl in English is quite amusing in Italian, and what would shock an Italian used to puzzle me immensely when I first moved here … how could phrases that seem so innocuous be so taboo?
Consider one of my favorites: bulls**t. It really takes the wind out of your sails to be raving about BS this and BS that, and have your husband rolling on the floor in hysterics. It’s just funny translated. You know, basically male cow poop. How did that ever get coded as an expletive in English? Not to mention another frequent guest star in my conversation: rat’s a**, as in “I don’t care a rat’s a** if all the hardware stores are closed for the month of August, you promised new shelves up by September and I expect new shelves or you can just make up the couch for yourself, my friend.” (Does this sound like a real life exchange? It should.)
On the flip side, the most weighty expletives in Italian are blasphemies. But they are a riot. Dog God. Pig God. Snake God. My favorite: Shoeless God. I mean, really. But the fact is that these are extremely offensive things to say, which took me quite a while to get a handle on. I moved here about ten years ago, and roughly ten years minus half an hour ago we started restoration work on our farmhouse. My formative months of Italian language education were spent in the company of lots of construction workers. One can just imagine what that did to my vocabulary. It was quite some time before I was able to rid myself of the habit, when told at the grocery store that there was no fresh ricotta and it wouldn’t be in until Thursday, of responding with a cheery Beast God, to mortified expressions all round.
Even shared expletives carry different weight in different cultures. The old standby F-word exists and is used in Italian as well (as anyone who has ever seen Grease knows), but whereas in this country it is often a throw-away sort of cuss … something along the lines of “to he** with it” or even addressed to friends in jest … we all know that in English it is quite a heavy handed phrase. Just as I had a problem with taking Italian blasphemes seriously, so did my husband in giving the f-word it’s proper respect in English. Many a dinner party conversation in the States has been brought to a grinding halt by my smiling husband lightheartedly suggesting someone at the table go f*** themselves.
I find it interesting that the most offensive curses in English have to do with sex, and the most offensive in Italian, religion (followed closely by “cornuto”, or the word for cuckolded, but I have to say that I hear that one less and less. I guess that whole Latin thing about being able to keep your wife happy is dying out.) I see the Puritan roots reflected on one side of the Atlantic, and the traditional Catholic ones on the other.
However, as I said, our swearing days are numbered now that we are grownups and have a mortgage and everything. Though we are pleased that our son is growing up bilingual, the ability to cuss out crazy drivers in a plethora of languages is probably not what we need to be cultivating in him. Or at least we should have him master please and grazie, first.