– Words that cannot be said

PagesWhen I was a child, there were words forbidden in our household.

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.

16 thoughts on “– Words that cannot be said

  1. Your children and curse words….ahhh, brings me back to a time when Eli toted around a notebook (if memory serves me, it was red) which eventually found its home hidden between Harrison’s mattress and boxspring containing every curse word he knew. In true Kokernak form, he was surely taking them all in, assessing them and choosing precisely the time and place to use them. Harrison, on the other hand, uses them often and sometimes indiscriminately.

    Oh, and while my father famously had no rules, “shut up”
    in any form, really pissed him off.

  2. Great topic, Jane.

    I think I’ve told you before that I *swear* (pun intended) I learned the key cuss words from my elders: “goddammit” from my father, “fuck” from my mother, and “shiiiiit” from my grandmother. And my friend Margaret probably taught me any other cuss words I needed to know. I knew not to cuss around teachers, and when I slipped (i.e., joined in) at home, my mother would occasionally tell me to “watch your mouth.”

    As for the biology-related terminology that apparently bounced off the walls of the house you grew up in, we didn’t use those. We went for slang. Expression won out over communication. Thankfully, that has changed.

    • Thanks, J3.

      I’d love to hear some of the biology slang of your youth. I understand such things have regional flavors. What, for example, did your Kansas City folk call the posterior?

  3. Great post Jane. It is funny b/c we have the same rule in our house about hate, kill and stupid. And obviously I didn’t live in your house. Well, I didn’t sleep there. Well, I didn’t sleep there every night 🙂

    It isn’t a spoken rule…when we hear them say it we say “I don’t like that word”. “Shut up” is also not allowed. Funny how certain words can evoke that kind of visceral yet emotional reaction.

    And my parents did swear occasionally, but it was never directed at us and it wasn’t said in anger. My mother’s favorite line was “oh, you hot shit.” Which literally is pretty disgusting, but my mother called your mother that all the time. I wonder what she thought? Like the movie St. Elmo’s Fire when the mother would say things softly like “prison”. My mother used to say, “this (low tone) sucks”. Too funny.

    Because we don’t swear in front of the kids (although, Jen just got back from London a few weeks ago and couldn’t stop using the word fuck very loosely for about 3 weeks), Noah (8) said the word asshole and didn’t know it was a swear word. I laughed out loud. He was quoting Spaceballs “I am surrounded by assholes.” I told Jen and we laughed for a good five minutes.

    • That’s so funny that your mother thought my mother was a hot shit. Huge compliment from Judy!

      Your story about your son reminds me of when my daughter Grace was a toddler in family day care. The daycare provider, Juliette, spoke Farsi as her first language, and spoke English with an accent. I guess at moments of great stress, she muttered “Jesus Christ,” which Grace heard as “Cheez-Its Chrise.” So, when Grace was frustrated, she often yelled, “Cheez-Its!”

  4. I am laughing so hard at work I am crying and people are now laughing at me. I therefore must let them read this post – it is brilliant and sweet and funny. I think it has “meat” and you could do a lot with it. But – the expression we couldn’t use was SHUT UP and I still follow that rule–more than any other, and sometimes I use it and Jason chides me–“Oh but I thought YOOOOUUUU didn’t SAYYYYYY Shut Up.”

    I still feel guilty saying “Oh My God” and “Jesus Christ” (not exultantly but as curses!) and you’ll hear me say in conversations more often “Oh My Goodness” or “Oh My Gosh” like a marm. (For me it isn’t about my beliefs, it is about respecting others’.)

    You left out two of my favorite F-bomb things to repeat: You told us that when Eli was a baby you stopped dropping the F word and just saying “EEEEEEFFFFFFFFFFFFF” or “EF It” or “EFF U” but gave that up quickly when he learned to talk and once said very sweetly in Eli voice: “EEEEFFFFFFFFF.” You also taught me to save the F-bomb for when you really mean it–as if we could so overuse the word it has lost its meaning–instruction I have yet to heed.

    (What food did I dislike? Canned Peas, mushrooms, and cauliflower)

    ….and Mom and Dad, if you are reading this, I hope you know that we all appreciate these rules now as adults!

  5. BT – I remember your mom saying “hot shit”–I thought she was cool–and her laugh–your comment brings me back…way back….

  6. “Well, Emily Kokernak. Aren’t you bold.” – Judy Trainor in response to Emily ringing our doorbell and telling my mother, “Mrs. Trainor – We think Bryan should fight his own battles.”

    Funny, my wife tells me to relax and be more patient when someone offends me. Maybe it was that experience that made me realize that I needed to stick up for myself. Too funny.

  7. By the way, I agree with Emily…canned peas make me want to vomit even smelling them but frozen or fresh make my mouth water. I don’t like cauliflower either. Mushrooms I like when part of a nice savory dish but wouldn’t eat them on their own.

    I cannot eat oysters. I don’t like lobster (but like pretty much any other crustacean) and I love anything with zucchini, eggplant or beef. I love jasmine rice and basmati rice.

    My favorite food is homemade tomato bisque with a grilled swiss cheese sandwich on seeded rye or texas toast.

    Or Filet Mignon with bearnaise and fingerling potatoes… 🙂 Same thing, right?

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