Monday, November 28, 2011

Grown-up Words? (From the Cleveland Post, January 27, 2011)

Grown-up Words?

by K. S. Volcjak

Building a child's vocabulary is an important parental responsibility. Oh, how proud we are when our child begins rolling long, grown-up words around in their minds and off their tongues.

Well, not all those grown-up words.

For a long time, my daughter had a rather prim aversion to those words designated in my early years as 'cuss words,' words that come out of my mouth from time to time. Sponge-like, she picked up a lot of my vocabulary and used it, but not those words, and I was grateful. I feel about those words the way I imagine smokers feel about smoking - don't pick up my bad habits.

Now, that aversion has faded. I have started to hear them, usually muttered under her breath, but I can hear them.

Just like my mother could. Once, when I was about my daughter's age, I got caught. I was half-way out the door to go play after supper on a school night. My mother told me to be home earlier than I wanted to be home. I let out an exclamation, thinking I was out of earshot.

"What did you say?"

"'Ship', Mother. I said 'Ship.'" I replied, popping those p's against my lips for all they were worth and compounding the crime of using a vulgar word by adding a lie.

That wasn't my first encounter with words. As my mother tells it, the first time she caught me, she washed my mouth out with soap. Ivory soap. She says I liked the taste of it.

What's a mother to do?

The thing is, I have a difficult relationship with cuss words. I tried to not cuss. I invented substitutes - 'shirtsleeves', 'ding-a-ling-a-bing-dang-it', 'good garden hamburgers!'

But I am a writer because words have power for me, and cuss words are quite potent. Substitutes catch people off guard and diffuse tension with a chuckle but they are not powerful.

For one thing, cuss words are forbidden to children, and so children come to see the use of them as a grown-up thing. They want to grow up, be adult, so they use them. Ick.

In my family, they were always used with a certain passion. There wasn't much casual cussing. Well, not in mixed company.

Most often, cuss words were reserved for desperate situations, like when the outboard motor wouldn't start, after a whole morning spent packing up and driving down to the water. They came out with the raw emotional pain of family arguments, or in deep anger at the cosmos, calling down God's wrath on the fools in power during elections or scandals or the normal sausage-making of political life. Cussing like that seemed to be a way of shaking your fist at the universe, to let 'them' know that you matter and won't be kicked around like that.

'Cussed' is, of course, a corruption of 'cursed,' but it has taken on a life of its own. Sometimes life has a certain cussedness to it - not the wrath of the gods, but the stubbornness of gravity or wet pavement or heartbreak. There is an emotional release in saying those words in those times.

Children mature, begin seeing their place in the larger world, begin seeing the slings and arrows as personal attacks by outrageous fortune. In one way, the child's cry of "It's not fair!" grows up into cuss words.

Powerful words. Powerful enough to stimulate academic research into the psychological and physiological impacts of uttering them. They meet a need (Really: check out "Profanity" on Wikipedia).

And yet - they are ugly as sin. The first time I saw a professional woman cuss, I was stunned. It was ugly, and I got a sick feeling when I realized I had looked like that.

I can't make my daughter stop cussing, but I can tell her how ugly it is. I can tell her how it will lower her in the regard of people worthy of respect, how it will keep them from taking her seriously, and how that hurts. I can continue my battle and let her see it. And I can hope she gets it sooner than I did.

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