Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Swearing Oath

By Roseanna Auten

JUNE 14, 1999:  Shit, I've got to stop swearing.

I've been muttering about this to myself since my daughter was born 14 months ago. It's a real problem. I'm an unapologetic swearer. I say "shit" and "fuck" in all their nominative, predicate, and adjectival forms. I regularly use interjections about God and His Son, and mothers' sons. Nothing's off-limits, really. Well, I don't go much for scatological stuff. But I'll even say "cunt." A lot of other people draw the line there. (But for some reason, "prick" is okay.)

"When are you going to stop?" asked my exasperated mother. She rarely swears and blushes when she does. I was cradling my then three-week-old baby, trying to hold my head up against the psychic and bodily exhaustion of new motherhood. "Oh, pretty soon, I suppose," I said wearily, wincing under my C-section incision. I couldn't face another major change just then, especially before the baby could even roll over.

"God-fucking-damn," I thought.

Since that time, Christiane has learned to roll over and sit up; she has learned to crawl and stand alone. Yesterday, she walked all on her own for the first time. Recently she's learned to communicate with "baby signs," such as darting her tongue in and out when she sees a frog. She's beginning to talk, too. At last count, she knows about 20 words, including "hi!" and "coo-coo" (cracker). My incision healed okay, and I got over the shock of having a new baby months ago. Yet I'm still swearing. When will I stop? When Christiane's 21st word is "shit" and her 22nd word is "fuck"?

That would be bad, right? Not as cute as the frog tongue or "coo-coo." Not quite the achievement that walking alone is.

I've been swearing so long, it's second nature. To me, it's a lot like breaking into song -- I do it when "mere" words won't do. Hear me out: In the right dosage, and in the right context, swearing enlivens everyday speech. It gets attention. Jokes can be funnier, and statements of anger are more pointed when punctuated with just the right four-letter word. (I'm less fond of it in print, however, and I think there is a gratuitous amount of it in movies.) And I'm secretly a little irritated when I see fully actualized adults use silly synonyms for the real words. "Oh, what a bunch of cr-- crud," they'll say, physically reeling back under some invisible grip.

"What, is your mother here?" I think. "Send her home, so we can talk like grownups."


illustration by Roy Tompkins

And it is mothers who typically police the "language" in a family, isn't it? Or at least, they're expected to. Not fathers. That's how it was in my house, anyway -- a task made more difficult by the fact that my mother came from a home where no one swore, and my father came from one where everyone did. So I learned the entire swearing lexicon, along with the puzzling directive that it was not to be repeated. I made my first mistake when I was about four years old. I walked into the toy-strewn room I shared with my brother and innocently announced, "Let's clean this crap up!" My father stomped in; he was not amused. Being the source of such speech in my home, I suspect he was chagrined to have himself mirrored back in this unflattering way. Oddly, he never censored himself at home, even after this incident, leaving my mother rather defenseless in the battle against "language."

As I got older, I spent more time out of my parents' earshot. Boy, you couldn't stick a cork in me then. Sometimes, I swore for no reason at all. The words had no context, even, no precedent in a sentence. I just loved to say them. By the time I was about 10 or 11, I really loved to screech the words at top volume, just to hear the exhilarating, staccato rhythms in my head, as in "son-of-a-bitch," or the musical, fricative sizzle of a word like "motherfucker."

Other times, though, I knew why I was raving. A child's world can be very frustrating -- I think people forget that. Swearing lent emotion and impact to the things I longed to tell about and make sense of. Why were adults so hellbent on controlling me? Shit. Why didn't they try to understand me? Fuck. Why didn't they take my fears seriously? Bastards. I had the illusion of control over my life, of freedom, when I chose my own words.

One of my favorite places to do this was at the home of a neighbor girl, Candy, whom I actually didn't like very much. But her mother worked and was not home afternoons. Candy was a Baptist, and her parents were strict. She could get a whipping (with a switch she'd have to harvest herself from her own yard, I might add) if her parents heard her cuss. Still, I thought if she did some heartfelt swearing with me, it might loosen her up a bit and make her more interesting. It was, you might say, for her own good.

One day, as we made sandwiches and geared up for an afternoon of crank phone calls, I raged against a boy in school we both hated, referring to him as an "asshole!" A look of dread washed over Candy's face. "Oh no, you can't," she said gravely. "My momma came home from work yesterday and said, 'Somebody been cursin' in here. I can hear it bouncin' off the walls.'"

It still freaks me out a little bit when I think about this.

Now I'm a mother, and I know what's expected of me. I deeply resent it for its being a gross stereotype for women. I think we're still expected to be the stern gatekeepers of linguistic properness. I hate that, always have. In an admittedly petty way, not swearing anymore deprives me of my freedom. But let us face it: A very small child with a dirty mouth probably has horrid parents. I don't want a reputation as a horrid parent. But I also don't want to be a cartoon of the disapproving Mom, the touchy stick-in-the-mud. I don't think anything could be worse than being that person, a person a child can't -- and doesn't want to -- talk to.

But it's finally dawned on me there are a couple of upsides in this dilemma. The first is so obvious, I don't know why I didn't see it first: My husband and I are not my parents. He's with me on this change in habit that we both have to make. And the other is: Unlike the cartoon Moms, I'll be speaking from experience when I explain to Christiane (when she's older) that with language -- any kind of language -- context is everything. And when you can discern your audience and speak accordingly, it gives you unimaginably great power. I'm going to have to comfort myself with that same message, as I reel myself in and tap into that same power right now. Oh crud.


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