Growing up, I was mortified by how my mom would swear/curse/cuss. It felt to me like the final proof of our outsider status – stark contrast to what I imagined the life of a desirable family to resemble. Even though our neighborhood was composed of families who were also just as poor as we were, often also lacking a father, and also noticeably chipper at the first of the month (when the welfare checks and food stamps would arrive), I was nevertheless convinced that our situation offered special embarrassment.
It is likely that my warped sense of ours as a particularly remarkable case of humiliating lowness was in large part born of our nightly viewing of “Little House on the Prairie.” Aside from the saintly gay couple living across the street, Michael Landon as Charles Ingalls provided my sisters and I with a father figure to rely upon. Our mom would always remark how handsome he was, swooning a bit over the shirtless work scenes, with the cherry-on-top reminder that “he’s part Indian, you know.” Of course those more primal attractions were alien to my own heartfelt loyalty toward the perfect patriarch of the Walnut Grove world. What we girls most liked was that the show was full of girls guaranteed the bounty of their ideal father. And oh such a wife! I cringed at the comparison between my own swearing Mom and Caroline Ingalls. Her serene, yet spirited, strength of character empowered her to behave ever piously and refined.
I knew which role I’d prefer to model.
To this day, I almost never swear. Of course, toes will stub and light bulbs will burn out, and reflexive words of frustration spontaneously emit. However, a childhood’s worth of conflating bad language with poverty with fatherlessness with worthlessness assures that such slippage occurs either entirely in my head, or at a very low register.
So I wonder, how many people are keenly aware of, and dismayed at, how rampant and unbridled use of the f-bomb &company has become? I hear people swearing loudly in public ALL THE TIME. Sometimes into phones, sometimes walking alongside a companion, but ever loudly and unabashedly. When I am with my children, I will say something, to which the person will swiftly offer apology. But I wonder, why the habit of those words at all? The naughty comedic element has its appeal I suppose, but like any joke can quickly wear thin and die through overuse. Is it the ingrained emphatic nature? An interjection that could be considered harmless? But then, why not mix things up a bit with alternative, G-rated interjections? I mean, sheesh. Gracious. Have mercy.
It may be that a certain thrill of power comes with such words – a clear signal that any attempts at reigning in expressive options will be wholly refused, rejected, and intrinsically ridiculed by the liberal use of expletives.
In that case, perhaps the outcry of profanity that accompanies my stubbed toe is not at all different from the more liberal pepperings found in the speech of those around me. Maybe my Mom was reflexively responding in frustration to pain unsought and undeniable. Maybe all that bad language I hear is a product of vulnerability and the need to insist upon some agency. Exactly the same reasons for my purposefully, habitually clean utterances. All yearning for strength.