I am a recovering cuss-a-holic. It’s true. I once had a potty mouth that rivaled that of any four-year-old.
I still hold that profanity is one of the most useful tools we have in language. There are times where only certain naughty, nasty, dirty words will do. Words that are full of emotion and intensity. Saying them yields a deep satisfaction that, “rats!” and “Gosh” or even “F-that” cannot. And, heck, it feels good to be in touch with that dark corner of myself.
I took this vow of restraint early on in motherhood, when Sophia was just an infant, at my husband’s urging. He wanted me to get out of the habit ASAP. Before it was Too Late, and we had a baby whose first words were “mama f’er.” Much to my surprise, after years of using language that might have made Sophia’s tender ears bleed, I stopped, cold turkey.
It was a cinch.
Perhaps it had to do with an identity shift—from a woman who had a whole closetful of words of mass destruction, to somebody’s mother, responsible for nurturance and healthy development. Or maybe it was just fear that other parents would be appalled by my daughter’s vulgar vocabulary, innocently repeating what she had heard at home on the playground. Creating a whole cohort of profanity-lovin’ preschoolers:
“These chicken nuggests are f’in awesome!”
“Screw time out!”
“I just pooped on your head. “ Oh wait. They already say that…stuff.
If I’m being honest with myself, it was probably the latter. Shame is a powerful motivator.
So I cleansed my lexicon, exchanging acerbic, emotion-laden words for sanitized, toddler-friendly ones:
"F! G, H, I, J and K!" “Aw buggers!” “Rats and cats!” Shit like that.
And, gee-whiz, life was just swell for a while.
But eventually, like all children, Sophie developed an ear for words-that-should-not-be-mentioned. Words that I would venture are much worse than any swearword I used to utter, because, rather than shout them into the ether (as I would), they are commonly hurled at others and meant to hurt.
She didn’t say them herself, but I watched a fire come into her eyes every time she heard someone else say them. A delight in their wrongness. And these words are everywhere. TV. Books. Songs. I might be able to shield her from four-letter vulgarities, but these cruel and wounding words are much harder to avoid.
When Sophie says, scandalized, “Mommy, she just said the s-word!” she’s referring to the invective “stupid,” one of my least favorite words in the English language.
“I know, Soph. And that’s not right. It’s a word that hurts other people and we do not say it,” I reply.
“I know mama, “ and she does. Even in her angriest moments, she manages to keep it clean. Yet, I watch her struggle with wanting language that describes her sour moments. She’s taken a cue from me, watching me generate g-rated expletives to sub-in for their r-rated counterparts.
“I came up with a new word?”
“Yeah? What is it?”
“Stupungous? What does that mean?”
“The s-word you won’t let me say.” It is stupid with sugar on top. A hybrid of stupendous and the forbidden.
Just then, it hits me: how am I to tell her that…no…who am I to tell her that she has to limit her expression to just nice words? To bleach her speech?
As long as she is using them to articulate her feelings—not to attack others—but to air her frustrations and her fury, I see no need for censorship.
I believe there is such a thing as swearing responsibly.
“Hmmm.” I tell her. “I kinda like it. Can you use it in a sentence?”
“You don’t use it in a sentence, mom. You just say it: Stupungous!”