#22. Cleaning up my potty mouth

Readers, do you remember a few weeks ago? When I tried to give up caffeine for a week? And I pronounced the experiment a failure because I fell off the wagon once or twice? Oh, what I would give for that success rate now. Because, by any measure, this week was a bona fide failure. This change was, without question, the hardest one I have attempted to date. It eluded me at every turn. It challenged my nature to the very fiber of my being. It frustrated me and taunted me. “What was it?,” you ask. Did I attempt to run a marathon? Save one small child per day from a burning building? Single-handedly mop up the oil from the BP spill using only a sponge and a roll of Bounty?

Oh, no. It was much bigger than that. For seven days in a row, I tried not to swear.

I realize that, for many of you, this wouldn’t be much of a challenge. I also discovered that many people I spoke to this week didn’t realize it would be a challenge for me. Which means that either they don’t know me that well … or maybe I don’t curse nearly as much as I think I do. Either way, that was the obstacle I set before me.

Writing this at week’s end I am, once again, wondering why I thought to undertake this change in the first place. Because the truth is, I love to curse. I love profanity. I like the force of it, the sound of it, the sheer flexibility and prurient pleasure of it. Yes, I’m grown up enough to recognize that not everyone digs it and I can curtail my potty mouth out of respect for others, but as a general proposition I just find it – particularly the F bomb – so salty and so useful.

I like to tell people that the reason I curse so much is because I spent the first ten years of my life in Scotland, where swearing isn’t just commonplace – it’s taken to a whole new level. (The Australians and Irish I know often take deep offense at this, claiming their own nations far superior in the wielding of profanity than the Scots. I don’t know how one does the metrics for the definitive answer. Perhaps we declare a tie.) Let’s just say the fact that some Scots like to pepper speech with the “c” word as a gerund (“That c***ing driver is out of his c***ing mind!”) suggest a really strong commitment to the sport.

It may just be my perception, but it seems the Americans have a pretty puritanical and classist opinion about swearing: those who swear are considered uneducated and uncouth. In Britain, however, being a posh genius is no barrier to getting’ down with the F word. I suspect even the Queen is known to swear a blue streak when, say, her grandson decides a Nazi uniform would make a stellar Halloween costume.

I was raised by an arts administrator/opera director and a school teacher in a household where intelligence, grammar and good manners reigned supreme. Perhaps it seems incongruent that there was also a very generous amount of swearing among my folks and their artistic peers. Of course, as a child, I greatly appreciated this. My siblings and I were no strangers to a wide vocabulary of foul language. Yet at the same time, we understood that not everyone felt it was appropriate and that certain words were for adults to use. But we sure enjoyed the hell out of it.

When we moved to the US, it became apparent that the American colleagues my father brought home for dinner were a lot less comfy with or prone to cursing than our British compatriots had been. Thus, we developed a little bit of shock-value family performance art reserved for when guests came over for the first time. At the dinner table, in the midst of polite and often spirited conversation, my adorable six-year-old brother would sweetly pipe up, “Mummy, would you pass the fucking peas?”

Inevitably, a stunned silence would fall across the table, our guests squirming uncomfortably, and my father, stony-faced, would glare at my brother and ask, “What did you say to your mother?”

And David, in his wee Scottish accent would say, “I’m sorry. Mummy, would you pass the fucking peas, please?”

My father would release an exaggerated sigh with relief. “That’s much better!” And we’d laugh and laugh and laugh, our guests eventually joining in when they got over the shock and realized it was all a big joke for their benefit. Oh, the fun we had!

So while this may all explain why I have such a tremendous affinity – and, I like to think, skill – for cursing, it doesn’t explain why I decided it would be a good idea to give it up for a week. I suppose because it’s hard not to be influenced by the American ideal that it’s fine for kids to watch movies where people get their heads blown off but not okay for them to hear the word “shit.”

Also, as someone who fancies herself an amateur wordsmith, I do appreciate the argument that relying on cursing can be lazy, a verbal cop out. I’ve heard people say it’s evidence of a small vocabulary. But I have a sizeable vocabulary and I love to swear. I don’t think knowing 80,000 other words makes saying “fuck” less fun.

But I tried. And by “tried,” I mean “failed.” I didn’t even make it to 11 a.m. on the first day of this experiment before I caught myself dropping the F bomb. The next day, I think I got to dinner time and it is, apparently, so deeply ingrained in me to curse that I didn’t realize I’d been doing it until my husband kindly pointed it out. Day after day, for seven days in a row, I failed. No matter how much I tried to remind myself not to do it, the salty language just came tumbling out.

It was starting to feel like I’d told myself I wasn’t going to speak English for a week. It was that natural for me. What this says about me, I don’t much care to examine. I just know that all that repeated failure was supremely frustrating and, frankly, a tad demoralizing. I’ve never been so goddamned relieved for a week to end.

I realized when the seven days were up that I’d been trying to conform to some external standard of propriety, some outside ideal that feels a tad too prudish for my liking. I have to remind myself – again –  that this is supposed to be about changing for the better and, at least by my (admittedly questionable) standards, I’m not actually sure that stopping cursing is a change for the better. You might think it is. Your grandma might. But I really don’t give a fuck.