It is day three (I promise I will not continue to count down every day — it is annoying, I know). I think I have 8 or 9 people following me in one way or another, and there are even a couple of you that are not relatives!
A while back, my younger kids, my husband and I were at a lake. My kids were playing in the water and I was, of course, sitting in the shade and reading my book (my kids actually believe that I will melt in water ala the Wicked Witch of the West as they have never actually witnessed me swimming. Ironically, when I was a kid my brothers often taunted me with the Wicked Witch of the West song from the Wizard of Oz. Hmmm, is there a connection?).
Anyway, my son, Andrew, who is 12 and enjoys nothing more than narcing on his sister, came running up and said, with GREAT excitement, “Ashley said the F word in front of some little kids!” Ashley is 8. Oh joy. This is one of those moments my mother warned me about. You know, the ones where your kids do exactly the thing that you don’t want them to do and in exactly the situation most designed to embarrass you in front of others. They have this power, and they know it. And they aren’t afraid to use it. Like when they yell “Don’t hit me Mom!” in the check out of the grocery store closest to your home, causing everyone to turn and look, right before the clerk says “Do you need help to your car Mrs. Meggs?” Insert your name, and your kids, and imagine that feeling. That is how I felt on the beach. The blood was pounding in my ears, and I was looking around, counting the witnesses.
I am a lawyer, though, so I did have to marshal the evidence a bit. “The F word?” I said. “Which F word?” Andrew looked at me with 12 year-old disdain. “THE F word, Mom! And she said it in front of all those little kids!” I confronted Ashley, who was building a river that would never make it to the sea (lake), because it started in a low spot and ran uphill to the edge of the water. They didn’t cover gravity in second grade. This may have been the source of the F word inducing frustration, I thought. The subsequent conversation went like this:
Me: “Ashley, did you say the F word?” (of course I said this in a calm and reasonable tone).
Ashley: ” NOOO! (said with conviction). I said friggin’.”
Andrew: (of course, he had joined us because there was no way he was going to miss this) “I heard her — she said the F word. And in front of those little kids!” (he clearly recognized the most damning part of the allegations).
Ashley: “I didn’t! The F word is f **k (spelling it). I said friggin’!”
Me: “Ashley, that is just a word that people use to take the place of the F word because it sounds like it. It isn’t exactly a swear word, but it sounds like one, and if you use it, people think you did swear if they don’t listen closely (ANDREW). It is not ok for you to use. It means the same thing as the F word.” (I actually looked it up, and the Urban Dictionary says that “friggin'” is a way to swear in front of your parents. Oh, and in England it sort of means something that would really be appalling out of the mouth of an 8-year-old. Yikes!)
Ashley: “No it doesn’t. It means “very.” You know, like in the song. “I wanna be billionaire, soo friggin’ bad.”‘ (Thank you Travie McCoy).
Me: (at a loss for words, especially since we saw Travie and Bruno Mars perform that song live at the Teen Choice Awards last year, suggesting my endorsement of the same) “Umm, just don’t use it. If you are frustrated say “rats” and if you mean “very” say “very.”
I am generally not very (or should I say “friggin’?”) uptight about swearing. There are so many worse things my kids could do. I have tried to convey to my kids that it is not that awful, but not particularly cool, either. And completely unacceptable for children. I have tried to explain that I see it as a sliding scale — what might not be so inappropriate in certain company and coming from a certain person (an adult man with a group of adult men, for example) may be HIGHLY inappropriate in another setting and out of another mouth (let’s say Ashley using the F word on the beach in front of little kids). I have also tried to explain that certain swear words are worse than others, and some words are bad, while not technically swear words. It is all very complicated and hard to explain. What do these words mean (oh lord, I don’t want to go there!)? Why are they so bad? Is it because people are around, or is a curse in the forest still heard? And what is it about these particular words? Would a word that means “f**k” in ancient Aramaic (come on — I’m sure they had one) still be a curse word if nobody understands what it means? Would a made-up curse word be as enjoyable to say if nobody got it?
Interestingly, as a family, we also just happened to see the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, a strange and wonderful movie from a book by Roald Dahl, a strange and wonderful writer. In the movie, Mr. Fox and his male friends do not use curse words. They use the word “cuss.” As in “What the cuss do you think you are doing?” This results in the very entertaining adult experience of hearing the phrase “cluster cuss” in a children’s movie. Maybe this is what I will say from now on when I feel a curse bubbling up.
And don’t get me wrong, on this point, I am no hypocrite — I have sworn plenty. And I do have 5 brothers. Growing up, I heard both the standards, as well as some creative twists on them. My brothers are nothing if not linguistically creative. And boy, did they enjoy manipulating the younger kids. I recall that the older ones especially enjoyed the game where they tried to get the younger ones (of which I was one) to innocently call other siblings names involving curse words, just for the hilarious joy of both calling your brother a name and seeing a little kid swear unwittingly. “Go tell Jim that he is a B***h.” “OK!” Picture me toddling off to Jim with a big, enthusiastic smile on my face.
This family background prepared me for my law firm years. For some lawyers, the F word is practically a term of art. I once had a partner say to me, in the context of responding to a settlement offer from the opposing side, “You go tell that f*****g f**k that he can f*****g take his f*****g offer and f*****g shove it up his f*****g a**, the f**k!” And he didn’t mean “very.” All righty then. I believe I translated this into “We decline to accept your offer, and we do so in the strongest possible way.”
But in my life, now, the whole expletive thing takes on a different meaning. Hey, there are kids around — tone it down! I think swearing is like salt. The more you use it, the more you need it to spice things up. Once you limit your intake, you start to realize how overly salty things are, especially those designed for mass consumption. Just try to go a week without salt, and then eat at McDonalds and you will see what I mean. At the same time, would you want a world without any spice? How boring would that be? There has to be some social value in blowing off steam with words rather than actions (remember, sticks and stones …) Maybe swearing is just more effective when used judiciously. Too much is bad for our blood pressure. Not enough, just sort of bland. And does that make “friggin'” the Mrs. Dash of curse words? Cuss if I know.