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Oregon Family Magazine


07/11/2019 09:39 ● By Sandy Kauten
My oldest daughter Marie was about 4 when she said her first dirty word. She’d come in from playing with the neighbor kids and said, “Daddy, Heather called Billy an ____.” It was a vulgar term for a well-known bodily orifice.

Long ago, a kid who said a word like that would have her mouth washed out with soap. (The scent of Ivory soap still brings back the taste and feel of those emotionally supercharged scenes of crime and punishment.)

Thus an important lesson was learned: Don’t use foul language unless you want a big reaction. Adults universally agreed that bad words were a big deal, so those words had power.

I remember at age 7, sitting in the neighbors’ yard with a few contemporaries, holding a whispered discussion on what word was absolutely the dirtiest. One boy nominated the F-word and another favored the S-word. I’d heard both words, of course, and somehow knew that the F-word was the king. What did it mean? Opinions varied. The one kid who offered the correct definition was jeered by the rest of us.

Sometime after that, I was in the back yard with my little brother Jim, who was about 6. We had one of those old snow sleds that are shaped like a contact lens, made of aluminum and measuring about 3 feet across. I was passing the time by heaving it into the air like a huge Frisbee. It wasn’t going very high – only high enough for little Jim to wander under it. It struck him a stunning blow on the head and he fell to the turf.

My heart went out to him in his moment of misfortune. That’s what it was – a misfortune, an accidental twist of fate. But I had a bad record for being the catalyst for these twists. Jim staggered to his feet screaming, “I’m telling Mommy!”

“Wait a minute!” I said, gently restraining him. “Jim, if you don’t tell, I’ll teach you the dirtiest word in the entire English language.”

He hesitated and then he was mine. “OK,” he said. Really he wouldn’t be giving up much. He’d probably have something else almost as bad to report to Mom within 24 hours.

“But first, you have to promise that you’ll never ever say this word,” I said, realizing I could beat a sled-throwing rap only to be convicted of corrupting the morals of a little brother later on.

He agreed and I taught him the dreaded F-word. “What’s it mean?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s very dirty.”

Jim was angry. I’d cheated him – a four-letter word, delivered incomplete, without a definition, and even if he could find out what it meant, he had vowed not to use it.

Reacting to the uptightness of the old days, my wife and I decided to under-react to bad words. So when Marie used her dirty word, I said casually, “I guess you know that’s not a nice word to say. Right?”

“I know,” said Marie, “But I’m only saying what Heather said.” (Only 4 and she’d mastered a fine point of schoolyard law – that quoting a curse word is nowhere near as bad as using one in earnest. Luckily she couldn’t cite the landmark case that helped establish this principle – Slackwood Elementary School v. Ricky Epstein.)

And that was the end of it, for then anyway.

When I was a kid, saying dirty words was considered immoral. It was in a class with assault, theft and cruelty to animals. But my wife and I made it merely a matter of etiquette.

How’d that work out?

Marie is 23 now and she hardly ever curses. She’s naturally refined. Her 20-year-old sister Sally, the college girl, curses a lot. She’s naturally crude. Our youngest, Wendy, age 16, never curses around me. I pay her $3 a week not to. A better parent wouldn’t have to do that, but I see it as a touch of household elegance at an affordable price. And what of my little brother? He’s 53 now – and completely out of control. I never should have taught him that word.

Rick can be reached at [email protected]
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