Casually speaking, foul language doesn’t bother me. I don’t care if I hear a “fuck” or a “shit” when I’m out in public. I’m not religious, so exclamations of “Jesus Christ” or “Goddamn” aren’t sacrilege to my ears. And I’m in my mid-thirties where I can comfortably settle into a rated-R movie and expect — no, demand — all sorts of adult conversation in the dialogue include a few f- and c-bombs. There’s always a context for foul language, of course: don’t run into a kindergarten classroom and shout cunt-bomb1 at the top of your lungs and don’t dance atop the front pew in St. Peter’s wondering, Christ on a cracker, where’s the Jesus jizz? It’s rude, it’s unsettling, and it’s not the time and place.
I swear quite a bit. On a scale from one to ten, where one is Tipper Gore’s PMRC slapping a parental advisory sticker on my face for explicit content and ten is Uncut Gems and Goodfellas running back-to-back throughout the day, I’d put my Trucker’s Mouth at a seven, which is more like an episode of The Trailerpark Boys. But Trucker’s Mouth is an affliction that gets better or worse with age depending on who you ask. I’ve gotten better in that I’ve found more creative ways of saying “go fuck yourself”, which is to say I’ve gotten worse.
While both of my grandparents had exceptional use of foul language, my grandmother — Southern, but no debutante — had the best/worst Trucker’s Mouth one could ever hope to have. She peppered her everyday speech with the usual “hells,” “shits,” “damns,” and “asses” but kept the “fucks” up her sleeve for when she meant business. While her common swear words remained PG-13, her creativity with foul arrangement and dirty jokes could bring the room down. On a road trip, my grandfather hesitated to stop at a rest area because there were too many motorcycles. “They might be a gang, honey,” he joked. “They might kill me and ravish you.” My grandmother, without missing a beat retorted, “Well, tell them I charge by hour.” Another time, she insisted on giving me, age twelve, the “birds and the bees” talk by saying, “Sweetheart, there’s nothing you need to know other than the birds peck you and the bees sting you. So stay away from peckers and stingers. You’ll thank me later.”
She also taught me a few extra fun euphemisms for good measure. For instance, my grandmother could not bring herself to say vagina when she meant, well, her vagina. Oddly enough, she also couldn’t use any fouler term like “pussy”2 or “twat,” preferring to use the absurd “twee-twa-twilly” instead. “I have to go to the doctors to see what’s wrong with my…twee-twa-twilly,” she would say, voice dropping to shyly mask what she meant. Or, “Did you see that girl’s dress? It was cut right up to her twee-twa-twilly! Where can I get one just like that?”
That’s not to say she used her arsenal of foul language all the time. Although no one mistook my grandmother for being a lady, no one mistook her for being trash, either. She didn’t flip out on anyone in the service industry or dismiss retail workers as her own personal attendants when she went shopping. She looked down on people who caused a scene in public, and warned me against ever doing the same. “If you’re ever slighted, just let it go. You’re never going to see that person again, so why bother getting into an argument?” She would smack my grandfather’s arm if she heard him say “piss” or “goddamn it” while we were out shopping, even if it was just the three of us in earshot and he was only swearing to make me, a child, laugh.
“Don’t do that, Mac,” she hiss. “People will hear and won’t think we have good breeding.”
“But honey,” he protested, “we don’t have good breedin’!”
I married into a foul-mouthed family. My spouse, M, my sister-in-law, R, and brother-in-law, T, describe their childhood as wild and unsupervised, running through the backwoods of Alabama screaming obscenities until their voices gave out. When that happened, they took sidewalk chalk and drew, in giant block letters, the word FUCK right in their driveway so their religious, feint-of-heart neighbor could see and clutch her pearls. M once got in trouble for calling a kid a “fucking bastard” — not for the F-bomb, but for the second half of that insult. R snapped at a kid and called her a “fat gutter-slut.” When school officials asked them where they heard this language, they unanimously declared: Our dad.
Their father — a squat, angry Irishman from Belfast — had a fuse as short as his legs and a face as crimson as his temper. From the time his children were old enough to understand language, he cursed: the laundry, the groceries, drivers passing him, the Iron Bowl — anything that got in his way or pissed him off. Fook off ye bloody eegit! He’d scream. Ah, ye fookin’ bastard! Look at the fookin’ pass ye just made! Look at the fookin’ eegit runnin’! NO ONE’S THERE TO STOP HIM! FOOKIN TOUCH DOAN! SHEE-IT! His children sat on the floor and gaped, wide-eyed and awestruck at the matter-of-factness with which their father could curse. No saucy innuendos like my grandmother. No coquettish replacements for sexual organs. Just the basics: “fuck,” “shit,” and “bastard.” Those would dominate the three siblings’ vocabulary for most of their adolescence.
When M and I paid him and my (now late) mother-in-law a visit on weekends in college, it would be nothing to walk into the house, hear him screaming “Honey, where’s the bloody remote?” in his Irish brogue. Then, he’d storm up to the living room, see us and go, “Hi kids — I can’t find the bloody remote!”
“You mean, ‘the fucking remote’?” M snickered.
“Don’t swear,” my FIL chided. “And yes. I do.”
Being a dumb Yank, “bloody” isn’t on the least of my concerns. In fact, I found this charming and almost cute. But I did find it strange that 1. My FIL chided M for swearing when he, in fact, taught him how to swear, and 2. The British equivalent for “bloody” is “fucking” so why be coy?3
“I don’t understand,” I murmured. “Why’s he being weird about swearing when he does it so much?”
“He does this occasionally,” M assured me. “He pretends like he doesn’t swear.”
“We don’t know. But it’s a lot of fun.”
“What do you mean?”
I found out the extent of how much my FIL did not want to hear his children swearing one Christmas.
M and I sat chatting with the rest of the family in the dining room. A Christmas Story marathon played on tv, ham roasted in the oven, wrapping paper littered the floor. All was merry and bright that afternoon.
Then, someone (not me) slipped up and said “the F-word.”
This wasn’t a vicious swear, as in someone snapped, “Oh, fuck you,” or “Fuck off, asshole,” to anyone. It was a casual drop in the conversation. Something akin to “Yeah, I was walking to the kitchen and I dropped the fucking fork and…” It was an innocent fuck, barely there. Anyone used to an adult conversation wouldn’t have batted an eye.
From his chair in the living room, my FIL barked, “Language!”
Remember, this was my FIL’s house. He could set the rules as he saw fit and break them as he wanted. If he wanted to tell his children (and children-in-law) not to use the same language he used not five minutes ago, then he could. Hypocritical? Sure. But again — not our house, not our rules. This was certainly not a hill worth dying on.
But M, an instigator, wasn’t going to let that go. Miffed at being told how to speak, they retorted, “Language? You mean, don’t say ‘fuck’?”
“Hey!” my FIL snapped. “Don’t use that word in my house!”
“Because I said so!”
Wanting no part in this squabble, I sank low into my dining room chair. I tried to count how many times I had said fuck since walking into the house, and came up blank. Maybe there were too many to count, or maybe I had impressed my in-laws with my curse-curbing. Or maybe no one gave two shits about my language (“He’s not going to tell you what you can and can’t say,” M would later tell me). But as much as I didn’t want to get involved, part of me wanted to see how this was going to play out.
Just how angry could my father-in-law get?
M’s younger sister, R, got that gleam in her eye when she wanted to start something. M may be the shit-starter in the family, but R’s the shit-stirrer. The next thing I know, she turns to M and says the following:
“Dad’s right, M. Shut the truck up.”
I put my hand over my mouth to stifle a snicker as the others at the table started beaming and giggling. From the living room, their father raised his bewildered head to see what loophole R just trounced through.
M, grinning, fired back, “No, you need to truck off!”
“No, truck you, M!” Laughter rippled around the table. In a minute, the two of them were trading insults, replacing the F-word with “truck” and creating as many absurd variations of the swear word as they could. I gave up hiding behind my hands and joined in laughing until my FIL caught on and stood up.
“Stop that,” he commanded. “What did I just tell you all?”
“But we’re not swearing,” R protested. “We just said ‘truck’.”
“I know what you’re doing!” Like a thermometer, redness rose up from my FIL’s neck through his face. “And I said stop!”
“Knock it off you two,” T, the youngest, chimed in. Until now, he had been quiet, hesitant almost to join in the merrymaking. But if M is the shit-starter and R is the shit-stirrer, he’s the shit-keeper of the group. To his siblings, he instructed, “Stop trucking with Dad.”
All of us burst into loud guffaws, holding our sides, even as our angry patriarch stormed into the kitchen and ripped open the refrigerator door. “Disrespect!” he roared. “Disrespectful bloody lot of ye! Asked for ye to not bloody well swear in me own house! This is what I have! Disrespectful bloody kids!”
We fell silent as he stomped out of the kitchen and back into the living room. The only sounds were Ralphie attempting to decipher his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring coming from the television. With beer in hand, my FIL plopped back down on his chair, cracked open his beer, and kicked up his feet.
No one around the table said anything for a solid minute. In the pit of my stomach, I thought, Well, we did it. We went too far. We pushed a poor man to his limits.
But then R, still stirring shit, says, “Hey, can someone help me out after dinner? I think there’s a light out on my truck.”
Then my father-in-law exploded and took us all with him.
1Fun fact: I got used to saying “cunt” in high school, probably because girls didn’t say it that often and I knew it was the one word I could use that they wouldn’t. Don’t bring “bitch” to a “cunt” fight, motherfucker.
2Another fun fact, I was never comfortable saying “pussy” as slang for a vagina until I was in my thirties. I always demurred and went with “hoo-ha.” Now, I can say “pussy” all day long and it doesn’t bother me. I mean, I’ll say vagina first, but “pussy” doesn’t bother me now. Yes, I was comfortable saying “cunt” long before saying “pussy.” Make of that what you will.
3Sidebar: on a family trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland, my FIL went absolutely bonkers with road rage in the car and I heard him use the word fook for the first time in front of me. I had been married to his oldest child for a year-and-a-half.