Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I don't, actually. Swear, that is. Mine is not a moral position, but more likely a stylistic one. Just about all the swearing I have heard over the years strikes me as trite and unimaginative. At the end of each interview on the TV program, "The Actors' Studio," James Lipton asks the guest actor, "What is your favorite curse word?" The responses, even from the most creative megastars, are standard and remarkably dull.

A little creativity in expletives, by contrast, is refreshing.

On the first day of eighth grade math, my classmates and I at Amphitheater Junior High didn't know what to expect from Mrs. Nichols, whose dark braids towered high on her head like Carmen Miranda's fruits, and whose stiletto heels clicked impatiently, a crisp warning on the concrete floor. We were swimming into the mysterious waters of serious math, we knew that. Mrs. Nichols' keen brown eyes glittered and leaped from Jack to Carolyn, from Carl to me, back and forth around the rows. She fired off several questions to see just how little we knew. Our answers were pathetic. Her reaction came in a whoop:

"GREAT CAESAR'S GHOST and all the LITTLE ghosts!"

This was her signature "cussword," and in the instant she cried it out, we knew all we needed to know about her. We knew she was acting, being playful for our amusement and entertainment; we knew she enjoyed the creativity of her phrase; and somehow we knew that, though she meant business, it could be a lively and enjoyable business. The woman liked math, she liked us, and she liked herself: we were safe.

My rotund, jolly grandmother--Nanny--was pretty unflappable. Very little seemed to upset her, even three free-and-easy grandchildren permanently underfoot. Whereas our grouchy, Germanic Gramps often spat guttural "goddammits" and "Cheezus Gotts" in our misbehaving direction, Nanny mostly just laughed and shooed us away like little horseflies. But on the rare occasion when she became deeply annoyed, Nanny made herself heard. "Oh, YOU! I'll take a switch to YOU! [She never did.] YOU, you just--OH, GO TO GRASS!" I was years older and fifteen hundred miles away before I understood that her "Go to grass" was a softer but no less specific way of saying, "Go to hell" or "Drop dead!" The destination was the same, but the words were more picturesque.

Of course, the power of curse words is always in the mind of the be-hearer. Many Christians who carefully avoid even a mild blasphemy like "My God!" are shocked to hear pious and mild-mouthed Frenchwomen say "mon dieu!" without the smallest hiccup. In Kathryn Forbes' beloved memoir, Mama's Bank Account(made into a movie as I Remember Mama), gruff old Uncle Chris helps his small, lame nephew Arne get through the worst of his pain by teaching him the fierce oath "Shimmelpilz!"--but warning the boy to use the horrible word for only the very worst of his agonies. Later when a prim aunt scolds Uncle Chris for leading the boy to the brink of blasphemy, Chris sneeringly translates: "shimmelpilz" means "mildew."

A woman met on shipboard spoke of the anguish of her long bout with a terrible case of shingles*--months and months of searing pains in the face and back, by day and by night. "Since then," she explained, "when I am totally disgusted with someone, I no longer say 'go to hell'; I say, 'Get shingles!'"

Our professor of Old English at university was the epitome of the "gentleman and scholar." Karl Young was a Western farm boy who had gone to Oxford and returned with all of his homegrown values intact plus a thorough education in the best European tradition transmuted thereon. One day in class he was explaining to us that the Anglo-Saxon phrase "Swiga thu!" meant something like "Shut your stupid trap!"--only more vitriolic. Then he paused and smiled to himself. "I can just see that phrase sweeping across campus now, with students growling, 'Swiga thu!' at each other." It was our turn to smile to ourselves. There were seven of us nerdy English major types in the graduate class. The thought that from our little band, an Anglo-Saxon phrase would sweep across the campus of 30,000 students a nd become the catch phrase of the term seemed as implausible as the heroic tales of Beowulf and the monster Grendel we were laboring to translate.

My favorite blessing/cursing comes from another Western farm boy, Levi Peterson, a classmate in the Fifties, later a scholar, professor, editor and novelist with a considerable regional reputation. In his prime, he was just a shade better looking than Paul Newman (whom he resembled). One day I must have done him some small favor, and in parting, he said, with his unhobbled cowboy twang, "May all your children be born naked!" I was startled at this benediction, but his good wife Althea hastened to reassure me: "This is what he says when he means you well. When he's angry at you, he says, "May all your children be born with spurs on!"

Now there's creativity, Actors' Studio!

*Just in case you missed this news: there is now a vaccination against shingles, to which anyone who has had chickenpox is susceptible. Shingles can be just mildly annoying or it can be hugely painful for long periods of time. The vaccination is expensive at present, depending on what your insurance covers, but anyone who has had shingles would probably say it's worth the money.

1 comment:

Betsy said...

Wonderfully entertaining as usual. My dads favorite cuss word was phooey phoo. I can still hear my mom say to dad, "Now Mac" when he was bold enough to say it in front of her. LOL Betsy