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!