We were driving in the family minivan, which was front-wheel drive, through Franconia Notch in a storm blending snow and sleet, with a slick sheen of black ice glossing the pavement for good measure. Dad asked how the driving was. Mom, clutching the wheel in the dark, answered with a variation of what my kids would call “the S word.”
Fast forward a generation to children who do not shed tears at the utterance of swear words. My kids are familiar with all the most oft used four-letter words, and a few others. Partly this is because they are at that age where swear words are fascinating in their sheer naughtiness. Partly it is that my older two children are on a reading tear that progresses through several books a week, which means they have moved on to more adult content, which includes, sometimes, minor league swear words. And partly – I’m not proud to admit – it’s because their mother has a potty mouth.
I do not drop swear words into everyday conversation, but I do sometimes slip up on the language front. To stem the tide of the bad words I utter, this summer I implemented a Swear Jar.
My children think this is great fun: Mom plops a quarter in the jar every time she commits a verbal violation. (So, rarely, does Dad, as well as other visiting grown-ups who are caught by my gleeful children in adult conversation using the occasional adult vocabulary.) They think the jar will be filled in no time, and they will subsequently be rich with shiny quarters. I’m just hoping it helps me clean up my language.
Why do I cuss? It’s certainly not a product of my own upbringing, during which nary an F-bomb was dropped. If my dad uttered something so harsh as “damn,” we knew one of us was in big trouble. That evening in the car when my mom swore, I thought the world might just be ending.
I don’t remember when swear words wiggled into my regular vocabulary. Maybe it was college, or the gradual increase of swearing in movies and T.V. shows and other forms of pop culture. Probably, though, it started during the five years of my relative youth when I lived in a ski town. Or in the several years after that when I spent (and still spend) a considerable amount of time hanging out with a bunch of other ski coaches, who can toss around the swear words nearly as ably as legendarily cuss-happy sailors. I used to coach all winter with a friend who is also a fisherman, which is close to a sailor, at least when it comes to language usage.
It was in between those two eras, however, during the six months I lived in Ireland, when I first experienced cussing as an art form. The Irish have earned a reputation for their friendly hospitality, but if you spend a bit of time with the locals, you’ll find those lilting Irish voices take swearing to a level far beyond any American ski coach or sailor. They pronounce some favorites a bit differently – replacing a U with an E in one and transforming a short-I sound into a long-I in another – but the gist is the same. And they use words even I can’t bear to utter, tossing them into conversation as if they’re harmless qualifiers.
Regardless of how my potty mouth has evolved, I have made a strong attempt to restrain it since my kids arrived on the scene. Like many parents, I’ve developed verbal alternates to actual cuss words. “Son of a motherless goat!” is great when I drop something on my toe or whack my head on the not-fully-opened back door of the minivan. “For Pete’s sake,” which I may have inherited from my dad, is a good all-purpose expression of frustration. I also enjoy, “For the love of Pete,” alternately, “For the love of all that is holy.”
I am trying to be creative in articulating my annoyances, and the very presence of the Swear Jar inspires me, usually, to take a deep breath before bleeping. It is being filled much more slowly than my kids thought it would be. We’ve decided that if the Swear Jar ever does get filled up (or if I just stop needing it), we will donate that money to some local charity.
Less swearing and a bit of cash for a good cause: that sounds like a win-win, no matter how you say it.