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A Way With Words

At no time is freedom of speech more precious than when a man hits his thumb with a hammer. — Marshall Lumsden

“Dododummyshutup,” said my friend Joe the sommelier. His cheeks reddened, corroborating the statement he’d made moments before — that he considered the silly huddle of children’s words profane. He rested his hands on the bar between us and said, “My sister would call me that. It’s a combination of the three worst words we knew as kids that, when combined, created a super-expletive. Even now, if she calls me that, it hurts because I know it means she’s really mad at me. And every once in a while, I’ll think it to myself if somebody leaves me a wretched tip. It makes me feel better and makes me think of my sister.”

Joe, whom we routinely visit for chats and drinks at Kensington Grill, pivoted to tend to other customers and then returned to refill my wine glass. “I find it hard to believe those were the worst three words you guys knew,” I said. “Sounds like you grew up in a sheltered household.”

I recalled a story my mother told me about how she and my father, as young parents, entertained themselves by teaching my eldest sister, Jane, to say “damn.” “It was so funny for us to hear such a small person curse,” Mom said with a chuckle that revealed she still found humor in it. “But when we went to visit your grandmother and Jane said it in front of her,” Mom continued, “I was mortified. That’s when we stopped encouraging her to say bad words.”

While sitting at the bar, I’d taken a call from Jane; it was my overhearing her five-year-old daughter in the background saying “Oh, crap” that sparked the conversation about kiddie curse words. “You curse now, though, right?” I asked Joe.

“Oh, yeah, all the time,” he said, though I had trouble picturing him uttering anything racier than “aw, shucks!”

“The way Barb curses, you’d think I was living with a sailor,” said David, earning himself a playful punch on the arm.

“I doubt there are any sailors who swear as often as I do,” I said after dropping the brow I’d raised at my man. “But give me a break, both of my parents were born and raised in Brooklyn, where cursing is more a cornerstone of the dialect than it is an intention to offend.”

Despite my claim that my family practiced word-egalitarianism, I could remember the day I learned some words were “bad.” I had just turned five and was sitting beside my two-year-old sister on my parents’ bed, watching my mother fold laundry. On a whim, I decided to test drive a phrase I’d picked up from one or both of my parents — something they repeated often in a friendly, teasing tone: “Fuck off.”

“What did you just say?” Mom’s face had been transformed. She set down the shirt she’d been folding and gave me her full attention. I liked that. “Don’t you ever say that again. That’s a dirty word,” she said. “It’ll make your mouth so dirty I’ll have to wash it out with soap.” This was a new concept, and not much of a threat, as the word “soap” conjured nothing but happy, clean imagery. Still, I got the impression that Mom was not pleased. She returned to her folding.

I waited for what seemed like an hour (but was more like ten seconds) before intoning the same phrase, directed at my unassuming kid sister. I presumed incorrectly that my mother, not three feet away, was incapable of hearing my stage whisper. Mom acted swiftly; she scooped me up and propped me on the bathroom sink and shoved a bar of Ivory in my mouth. I held it between my lips, then, I dared a lick, recoiling as I learned the taste of soap was in no way as pleasant as its smell.

In my adolescence, Mom’s discipline waned as a result of my determination to acquire freedom of speech. I began with an innocuous-enough word. When Mom asked me not to say it again, I told her I was merely referring to the small songbird when I had called my friend “a tit.”

“You know, you curse much more when you’re on the phone with your family,” David said after Joe had stepped away to mix a few cocktails.

“That’s because I feel comfortable with them,” I said. After a moment’s thought, I added, “And like I said, it’s a dialect.”

David doesn’t swear…okay, so he drops the occasional F-bomb, like when he sliced off part of his thumb while cooking or burned his other thumb on a bulb in the refrigerator that had no business being that hot. But for him, curse words don’t come naturally; it would sound awkward for him to bust one of George Carlin’s infamous seven. I attribute this to his formative years.

“I would be shocked if my mother cursed,” David said.

“I once coaxed a ‘bitch’ out of her,” I bragged. I didn’t tell him that I’d had to voice the word for his mother first, to let her know it was okay, or that as the word came out of her mouth she looked as if she was being forced to eat a bug. She said it, that’s all that mattered, and I took full credit. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with cursing. They’re just words.”

“If I hear someone talking and every other sentence is f-this or f-in’ that, I can’t help but think that person is unintelligent,” David said. “Because an intelligent person would have the vocabulary and creativity to be more eloquent.”

I sipped my wine and pondered my stupidity and sudden urge to utter an expletive, the latter of which sparked a memory. “What about that article we just read about the study they did in Britain?”

In the article, we’d learned that the psychology department of a British university found that swearing helps people withstand pain. Something about a naughty word accesses the right side, or emotional area of the brain, whereas normal language engages the left. For the study, participants were asked to submerge their hands in ice water. Those who were allowed to recite their chosen expletive were able to keep their hands submerged up to twice as long as those who were told to repeat an innocent adjective. I thought about my emotional connections to bad words, beginning with the soap-tasting incident: a mixture of power, shame, and exhilaration.

“Cursing makes me feel good,” I said. “And now there’s scientific proof that I’m not alone.”

“Yeah, well, I can think of several feel-good things I wouldn’t do in front of other people,” said David.

“I guess that’s the difference between you and me, beh-beh,” I said. Then, to show David I wasn’t swayed by his argument, I said, “Hey, Joe. This wine is the shit.” Both men rolled their eyes at me as I giggled into my glass.

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