I talk a lot about words on this site—probably because that’s how I make my living and because language is my passion. My mom insisted that we all have strong, extensive vocabularies, so word play is inevitable whenever we have a family event. We are voracious Scrabble and Boggle players, and we just discovered Apples to Apples, a words and definitions game that is loads of fun. So you see, I love words. I collect them the way other people collect Hummel figurines or coins or antiques.
But I’ve always been of two minds about profanity—you know, the bad words. I used them in college because I was away from home and Mom wasn’t around to give me “the look.” That disapproving, over-the top-of-her-glasses look that clearly said, “Puh-leeeze, you have more intelligence than to use that word!” Besides, most all the girls in my dorm cursed. We tried on bad words the way we tried on each other’s blouses and jeans and earrings. It was daring, and the occasional muttered “Fuck” made us feel very sophisticated.
I limited my profanity after I got married and stopped altogether once Son was born. Husband wasn’t quite so cautious with his words, but he tried to be careful around Son. The kid was a quick study and we learned very quickly that if a word came out of our mouths, it would surely come out of his. Imagine our surprise one winter evening as we sat around with my dad and stepmom watching our little 21-month-old angel building with blocks.
He’d gotten quite a tall tower going with the multicolored wooden squares and rectangles. Kneeling beside his structure, he placed on more block on top, giving us a delighted toothy grin of victory. Suddenly the tower wobbled precariously, then crashed to the carpet. Placing his little fists on his diapered hips, he scowled at the pile of blocks and declared, “Shit!”
My dad almost fell off the couch laughing and Husband’s expression was priceless—innocent as a lamb when I gave him the stink-eye. My stepmother, sitting primly on the edge of the sofa said, “Ahem. Well…at least he’s using it appropriately.”
We didn’t even bother correcting him, but we did try to be more judicious in our choice of expletives. We got very creative, “Oh, popsicles!” or “Phooey!” or “Golly Moses!” As he got older, we explained that bad words were tasteless and most people didn’t want to hear them. But when he was about eight or nine, we’d been attending a pretty conservative church (I was going through a phase that will no doubt be the subject of a future post…) and one Sunday, his Sunday School teacher pulled me aside. Son stood in the classroom watching us with trepidation.
“I need to talk to you.” Her expression was deadly serious and my heart sped up. What on earth could she want? “Your son said something this morning I think you need to be aware of.”
“What did he say?” I asked, fearing the worst.
“Well, one of the other children said the ‘c’ word.” Her eyes were huge and her voice dropped to an even quieter level. “You know, c-r-a-p?” she spelled it behind her hand.
“Okay.” I was having a hard time figuring out what this had to do with Son, but from the look on her face, I could tell it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“When Johnny said it, Peter told him that he was going to hell because cursing is a sin. But then your son stepped in and told them, ‘He’s not going to hell. Cursing’s only a sin if you use God or Jesus’s name. Otherwise it’s just bad taste and people don’t want to hear it.’” Her lips thinned to an almost invisible line. “Where do you suppose he got an idea like that?”
I couldn’t help myself, I snickered and the snicker grew into a chuckle and then into a full-blown chortle as the teacher’s lips totally disappeared. When I could speak, I replied, “Probably from us.”
“Well, he needs to understand that God expects us all to use nice words. I won’t have that attitude in my classroom.” Disapproval radiated from her demeanor like heat from a wicked sunburn. “This is the house of the Lord.”
“Thanks,” I said simply, knowing it was pointless to have a discussion with her about appropriate word usage. Besides, my poor little guy was obviously trying to figure out if he was in deep caca or not. “I’ll talk to him.”
Son tucked his little hand in mine and we walked together down the steps and out of the church. I opened the car door and he clambered in. Looking up at me, tears shimmered in his hazel eyes. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he asked with a sniff. “I’m bad ’cause I told the class that crap’s not a sin word. Teacher gave me a hard stare and told me to be quiet.” He shrugged his skinny shoulders. “She was mad.”
“Yep, she was mad,” I agreed, reaching around him to fasten his seat belt.
He took my chin in his chubby hand. “Mommy, are you mad at me? I just told the truth.”
“No,” I replied and dropped a quick kiss on his freckled nose. “I’m not mad a bit. But you know, sometimes, it’s better to be quiet, even when you think you know what’s right, okay?”
He nodded and smiled through his tears. We sang the Doxology on the way home and when we arrived, Son hurried to tell his dad what had happened. Then he added gravely, “I think we should find another church, Daddy—one where the people know how to use bad words.”
Out of the mouths of babes…