Ah #&@*, I did it again — trying to stop cursing and let another one loose unconsciously.
Without the redundant profanity (a sorry attempt at a joke), that’s what I thought last night when something irritating happened and, muttering to myself about it, I used “colorful” language.
Stopping cursing is about like stopping smoking, I’d imagine. Perhaps more difficult from a certain point of view — you don’t have to buy profanities. They’re there, piled up in our heads, for free! And you never run out of them, so you can’t really think to yourself, “As long as I don’t stop by a convenience store and see a wall of cigarettes, I’m fine.”
My parents tell the story of when my father was trying to stop cursing, he and my mother set up a system that each profanity cost some part of their weekly spending money. They were a young couple, and the purse strings were tight, so they allotted themselves only a few dollars a week as personal spending money. My father “spent” all his money and then some one afternoon waiting for, if I remember correctly, a “woman driver” to turn left.
What is it about profanity that has such a draw? It’s so difficult to stop, and yet so easy to begin. You can sit with an infant, patiently trying to teach her how to say something — anything — and she, with stubborn resoluteness, sits and says nothing. Then you hear the soup boil over, exclaim something you shouldn’t, and when you come back a second later, the infant is chanting your profanity.
It’s not that children have an ear for the vulgarities of their own language. An acquaintance told my wife and me that her daughter has recently begun using “the ‘f’ word” because — guess. It’s a word that has no meaning in Polish, though it does sound like “Kwak,” a somewhat common surname.
Nonetheless, there she was, running around the apartment saying, well, the obvious.
When I moved to Boston after having spent three years in Poland, I began muttering Polish profanity — and it is a language rich in profanity — at work when something was trying my patience. Then a Pole started working there.
In Polska, cursing is strangely culturally accepted. That’s not to say that it’s universally practiced, for if everyone cursed, then it would cease to be profanity. Still, in the States someone out “in public” doesn’t usually let the four-letter words fly at will. A bus driver, for example, wouldn’t be sprinkling is conversation with a passenger with profanity, but here, it’s a common occurrence. I’ve heard fathers let loose while their four-year-old daughters stand beside them, grandfathers going crazy while their five-year-old grandsons run around at their feet — and then it’s no wonder that you hear a five year old say the Polish equivalent of, “Hey, *#@$-for-brains, where they *#@! are you going?”
Why did I write *#@$ rather than “shit?” It’s always amused me to read quotes in something like Sports Illustrated where instead of quote the pitcher verbatim, puts words like s*$# in his mouth. As if we don’t know what it means, and, more importantly, as if we don’t sound the word in our heads as we read it. Is “shit” any worse than *#@$ for conveying the same idea? It’s even gotten to the point that without any context, we have a pretty good idea what *#@$ means, so what’s the point?
I’m not sure if it’s the rural environment, or Polish culture in general, but one does hear much more “in public” than one hears in the States. In stores, in bus stops, on the streets — it’s everywhere. In Polish, it’s not “the ‘f’ word” but rather “the ‘k’
word” and it’s shocking — almost impressive — to hear how many times a riled up Polish man of, say, twenty-five, can use “the ‘k’ word” in a sentence.
Perhaps it’s a question of American culture’s Puritan roots. After all, there are advertisements for soap in Europe that show women’s breasts — unthinkable in the States.
I’m curious about other cultures — how is cursing viewed wherever you sit reading this?