The following were the big three. Really, these are the words I recall my mother itemizing, after she announced: “There are three words I don’t want to hear.”
I am about to write them, which is a kind of saying.
My parents had five children. While that made for a lot of fun, it made for friction, too. The forbidden words were ones that are most often useful in situations involving conflict. Say my sister Sally and I were playing the card game Spit. I’m older, but she was faster. In the heat of the game, when I suspected she was on the verge of winning, it would have been normal for me to growl at her and bark, “You’re so stupid and I hate you. I’m gonna kill you!”
But, I didn’t, because the words were forbidden. And just now, typing them? I felt very uncomfortable and even queasy. Those are not my words.
In the house I grew up in, we sat down together every night and ate a meal that my mother, usually, prepared. (Once in a while my father cooked.) It must have been hard to create a menu that all seven of us would find pleasing, day after day. I remember liking almost everything, or at least being willing to eat almost everything put in front of me. Still, my brothers and sisters and I each had our own personal limit. Me? Creamed corn. My brother Michael? Deviled ham sandwiches. (Sally, Emily, Brian: What were your dislikes?) Nevertheless, we could not say, “I hate creamed corn.” Instead, my mother recommended we phrase our distaste this way: “I don’t care for creamed corn.” Wordy, indeed, yet tactful.
My parents also preferred real words for objects, and not slang, especially when it came to the body and its processes. Growing up, I felt very comfortable saying breast, bosom, penis, buttocks, urethra, vagina, bowel movement, and so on. We called it — whatever “it” was in conversation — by its name. It was okay to use the generic “crotch,” however, to refer generally to a genderless genital area, as in, “I fell off my bike and hurt my crotch! Ow!”
One night when I was a junior in high school, my (new) boyfriend was standing with me and my parents in our kitchen. We were going out, and he had chivalrously come in to fetch me. In the background of our polite small talk with the parents, I could hear my brothers bickering. Finally, one yelled at the other: “You scrotal sac!” Instantly, an image of a scrotum presented itself to my imagination; it hung in the air, I thought, over the heads of me, my boyfriend, my parents. We chatted for a few more minutes, in a way to cover our mutual embarrassment, or so I thought. Later, in the car, I mumbled an apology for my brothers’ uncouthness. The object of my affection turned to me quizzically. After much stumbling we realized that he was more familiar with the term “ball bag” than he was “scrotal sac,” as offspring from most normal families were.
Years earlier, I had been instantly punished once for saying the phrase “Barbie Doll boobs” to my friend Linda and, regrettably, in front of my mother. “Boobs” is another one of those words that, in my childhood home, were not allowed to be spoken. Maybe that’s a good thing. As a young adult, and through my adulthood, I have always called them “breasts” and never a crass synonym. I’ve carried this over to my parenting, too, instructing my children to call parts of the body by their actual names, and when they say “boob” (what is it about that word that it is used so often, so much more so than dick, for example?), I reply, “It’s a breast.”
When Grace, my daughter who is now 9 years old, was only 5 or so, she explained to me that au contraire there’s a distinction: “Breasts are small and boobs are big.” Touché, little girl.
Because I was raised and religiously instructed as a Roman Catholic, there are many other forbidden words. My parents, for the most part, let the Church handle those rules. Still, even at home we were not allowed to “take thy Lord’s name in vain.”
Dear Father, I confess: For a long time — maybe my entire adult life — I have been getting occasional and great pleasure from hollering “Jesus Christ!” when surprised unpleasantly, like when I’m slicing a tomato and run the serrated knife over my knuckle.
And also, like many people I know who grew up with the knowledge of words like “fuck,” “shit,” and “asshole” as a kind of temptation, I give in — less wantonly than I did when I was younger — to the allure of saying what we must not.
Another confession: I do not censor my children’s inclination to use the occasional curse word. In fact, I have tried to teach them when expletives are and are not appropriate as strong language. In front of the grandparents and teachers? Tone it down. After you stub your toe, hard, on a table or chair leg? Give it the best you’ve got. You’ll feel better.
However, I do have some language standards. It’s a scrotum, not a ball bag, and a breast, not a boob. And, please, no “hate” or “kill,” and you can probably find a more descriptive word than “stupid.”
Image, “Excerpt from Everything Men Know About Women,” by dailyinvention on Flickr. License via Creative Commons.