MY MOUTH

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My parents spoke a very clean, if accented, English. (It was their second language.) No questionable word ever passed their lips.  My mother referred to pee as “little wee wee” and shit as “big wee wee” well into her eighties. When she decided it was time I understood where babies came from she went to the librarian in the children’s section of the public library; that lady, after inspecting me, solemnly unlocked a special cabinet behind the checkout desk and handed over a boring book that began with bees and flowers and relieved my mother of embarrassing explanations.

The book managed not to contain the words “penis” and “vagina.”  I picked those up several years later from permitted perusal, in her bedroom, of her much less boring copy of Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. (No question-and-answer period afterwards, though.) She did, however, have lifelong and frequently reported problems with “moving her bowels” and until my adolescence inquired daily if I had had success with moving mine.

My father never in my presence discussed anything pertaining to human execratory or sexual functions in so many words,  The one time I accidentally opened the bathroom door at the age of three while he was peeing, he roared so loudly I ran away crying without quite understanding what it was I saw that I shouldn’t have seen. When the human need to vent became overpowering, my parents fell back on Russian. By dint of living with them long enough I picked up the Russian words for “My God!” (bozh moy), “shit” (govnoh) and prostitute (“bladz”). This was apparently okay for me to know because nobody else would understand it.

It should therefore come as no surprise that upon emerging from this nest of conformists, I flew free.  No euphemisms for me. I never called a shovel a spade, a breast a bosom.  After the age of thirteen, I gave up darn for damn, heck for hell. I use gosh and golly (pious replacements for god) only facetiously in replies to blog comments, to express feigned surprise.  Gee whiz, jeez and jiminy (cricket) have never been in my vocabulary, although jesus! is, especially at peak intimate moments.  Speaking of such moments, as a very young woman I preferred to refer to them as “making love” but after discovering in a graduate school Chaucer course that the Wyf of Bathe (Wife of Bath), who had had five husbands, talked quite freely about liking to fuck (she spelled it “focke”), I adopted her language as a linguistically purer way of denoting the act.

In other words, whatever you may have deduced from my blog and its title, I have what anyone who’s even residually a prude would call a dirty mouth.  I also gesture.  Bill thought about breaking up with me two weeks after we met when he saw me give a driver — who had cut in front of me to make a sudden left turn — the finger!  Instead he became like a blotter, soaking up everything he’d deprived himself of all his long life, so that now we have to ration the “fuck”s and “shit”s coming from his mouth when he’s in a bad mood about anything.

I don’t insult, and I don’t call anyone names. I would never say of a real person that he’s a “stupid fuck” (pace other blogs), even if I wildly disagreed with that person’s views.  In the presence of the pious, I do not take the name of the Lord (who in any event is not my Lord) in vain. In the presence of the proper, I am seemingly “proper” myself.  I wrote academic papers in academic language. I wrote briefs in more-or-less legal language. I wrote newspaper articles in socially acceptable language. I write posts for this blog in language I hope won’t drive anyone away.  But if you lived with me, you’d hear a lot that never shows up on this screen.

I raised my children in Manhattan.  When he was four, my younger son asked me, “Mommy, what’s a motherfucker?”  He had heard the word from a truck driver on West 86th Street.  Once, when visiting East Hampton, we took both children to a movie recommended by the mother of one of my older son’s friends. (Older son and friend were eleven at the time.)  The movie was Saturday Night Fever and my older son’s friend’s mother was wrong.  Halfway through, younger son, then eight and a half, whispered, “Mommy, what’s a blow job?”  Still, what can you do?  You can’t shield children from the spoken language forever.  You can only teach them the difference between the vernacular (i.e. slang) and generally accepted English, and when use of each is appropriate.

Fast-forward twenty years.  I was spending Thanksgiving in northern Maine at the invitation of the mother of my older son’s girlfriend (later to be wife).  The only entertainment on the only channel available was a rerun of Sex and the City, in which the episode’s plot revolved around the bad taste of the semen of a boyfriend of one of the four main characters.  The language was equally salty. I later heard that my future daughter-in-law had whispered to my son she was so embarrassed I had to see it. What would I think of her?  My son reassured her:  “My mother?  You’ve got to be kidding!”

The foregoing may be one of the reasons this same older son gave me, as one of two presents on my birthday last July, a copy of Mary Norris’s new book, Between You and Me. Mary Norris is the copy editor of The New Yorker, a publication of extreme correctness about written style, punctuation, word usage, and  her book is an amusing meander through the do’s and (mostly) don’t’s of New Yorker style. Chapter Nine is entitled F*CK THIS SH*T.  I’m sure my older son thought I’d enjoy it.  It begins: “Has the casual use of profanity in English reached a high tide? That’s a rhetorical question, but I’m going to answer it anyway:  Fuck yeah.”

(Note: If anyone is interested in reading a very truncated version of this chapter, I would be happy to oblige in the next post. Just make your wishes known in the comment section below. Or you could indicate the converse:  “Enough already!”)

Interestingly, my two sons have developed late-blooming modesty since they left the nest.  Do inclinations skip a generation in this regard?  The three-year-old who walked down West 86th Street with me, joyously pointing at strange ladies and calling out, “She has a vagina!” is now a forty-six year-old father who references that area of the female anatomy, rather embarrassedly, as “private parts.”  His brother doesn’t mention such things at all.

Their grandparents would be so proud!

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10 thoughts on “MY MOUTH

  1. My family is neither prudish nor vulgar. However, I have a 36 year old grand niece who is extremely prudish and we can’t figure out where it came from. She embarrasses with the most simple of off-white phrases. Perhaps the tendency does jump around. My mother never used bad words. Her worst phrase was “goddamn” and it was reserved for her sewing machine which occasionally had a mind of it’s own.

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  2. Well, no question about it, there’s a similarity in the sort of education you and I received, when it comes to the use of language and sex. Except that my parents never even tried giving me a book to explain the birds and the bees. They probably figured that if I was interested in such things, I would find the book by myself. On the other hand, you’ve aroused my interest when you mentioned the question regarding ‘motherfucker’. Because that is a hard question for a New Yorker. Did you mention to your child that that expression was originally used by the Negroes to identify whites because of their practices with slave women when slavery was legal in the US?

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    • Regarding your “motherfucker” question, Shimon — no, I did not mention your explanation to my child because I did not know it then and had never heard of it till now, upon reading your comment. You will have to identify your sources, as I tend to doubt your information. Male white plantation owners owners in the deep South may indeed have made sexual use of their female slaves prior to emancipation of the slaves in 1863, but it tended to be the young virgins and not black mothers of other slaves. (I.e. Thomas Jefferson and the multi-racial lines of his descendants.) Which would void your explanation ab initio. There’s no question that “motherfucker” comes from black American speech but in my experience it is urban speech (not plantation derived) and is of the 20th century not the 19th. It is the worst of insults, but not necessarily indicative of a white person; someone who would stoop to fuck his own mother is indeed loathsome, irrespective of the color of his skin. You hear it a lot in the lyrics to rap music. Incidentally, your use of the term “Negroes” is now non-PC. [Alternatively, it dates you.] And now that we’ve taken care of etymology, sociology and the like, let’s get back to books. Apparently you were indeed interested in such things and found the book by yourself, even if it was the book of life!

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  3. My late husband, whose mother was a very proper English lady, never cursed….my children however are fantastic cursers…my son and daughter pepper their language in colorful ways..except when they are around oldies…(excluding me who happily joins in with them!!!)

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  4. I have a filthy mouth everywhere except around my children – where I am quite restrained. Now that they are getting older, I don’t react when they use curse words and I don’t let on that I curse too. But it seems that perhaps I should relax my restraint in that regard. So funny – as a young mother of young children I was concerned with presenting my best self, even if it wasn’t my true self. And now I am more focused on being authentic with them.

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    • I was careful too when my children were very young. But then they grew, and heard what was in the streets of New York, and life became more difficult (for me), which required more verbal release — and I realized my children were going to love me no matter what came out of my mouth as long as it wasn’t directed at them, which it never was. So there we were. And now that they’re in their forties, butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths!

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