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Dang It!

writer
Robert Scheer

Rule of Thumb: One writer agonizes over the entrapment of her inability to utter a vulgar word, no matter what the circumstances or the intensity of the pain.

Clean-mouthed regrets from a woman who never learned to cuss

By Beth Wolfensberger Singer

A CONFESSION. I HAVE never--not ever, not once, not even in situations that made me blisteringly angry--said the F-word. I'm an F-word virgin. I'm pretty sure I can't even type it. Wait. I'll try.

F ... Fu ... Fu ... c ... .

Nope. Not gonna happen. Likewise, I've never made use of the S-word (though I may have typed it once, uncomfortably, when transcribing someone else's speech). Lots of people seem to find the S-word handier than duct tape, but--to tell you the truth--it doesn't tempt me in the least.

There are certain words and phrases that, for some reason, I can bring myself to type, but I've never said "ass," "dick," "tits," even "butt." (Hmm. Apparently I'm a prude). I've never pronounced the name of the Butthole Surfers or "Beavis and Butt-head." I've never said "This sucks" or "This bites" or "Up yours." I've never called a guy a "prick" even though, on one or two occasions, it has been screamingly obvious that it was the proper nomenclature.

In the seventh grade, I did utter the B-word. A mean bully girl in home ec took a serious dislike to me and challenged me to a fight just as we were trying to make lemon pancakes. "You B-word," she hissed, only she actually pronounced the word. I hadn't done a thing! I was so shocked that I repeated what she'd said to my friend Diane. Then I blushed for, like, 10 minutes.

I didn't fight the bully girl, but I resent her to this day for inadvertently tricking me into saying the B-word. If I were ever going to use the B-word again, maybe I'd use it to describe her. But I'm not going to use it. Not likely.

For the record, I'm aware that the above admissions make me sound like a prissy miss sissy, wasting energy censoring myself in my sheltered little lemon-pancake fantasy world, and now attempting to bore everyone by explaining this pointless eccentricity. Before you vomit ("puke" being another word I can't say, though "barf," for some reason, is okay), let me add that I would never recommend my language restrictions to anyone else. For two reasons, actually.

The first is that I'd miss hearing people swear. It may not be coincidental, but over the years I've collected a good many friends who can cuss a blue streak, and I'd be lying if I claimed to be offended by their language. In fact, I love it when they swear.

My friend Jeni, in college, looked at first glance like a demure creature, but swore like Eddie Murphy. "F you," "F that," "What the F?" and just plain "F" were her most common refrains. It was apparent to me right away that the F-word made Jeni sexier, more intriguing and hands-down funnier than I could ever be.

Once, just to see what would happen, she told me to F off. I knew she was joking, but I'm not a very abrasive person, and no one had ever said that to me before. I had to sit down for a minute. Talk about powerful language.

My friend Eric is verbally capable of stringing together a whole sentence of swear words and pronouncing it, with élan, in two seconds flat. When we lived in the same house once, he cussed around me so much that it infected my brain. I'd be waiting for a bus after work, and I'd think, "It's colder than a witch's tit! Where the F is the F-ing bus?" and I'd know that it was Eric infection, and that would make me smile.

When Eric visits from Oregon now, he makes me drive him around town so he can cuss out all the bad Santa Cruz drivers on my behalf.

"You mother*&#%@!" he yells, really loudly. He opens the window, leans back his head and lets loose, a big old grin on his face.

"Get out of the *&#%ing intersection, #&*!@head!" he yells. "*%$$!!#!"

It's a joy to behold. I laugh until my ribs hurt.

Mixed Metaphors

THE OTHER REASON I would never recommend abstinence from cussing is that one of the rationales behind my decision not to swear has turned out to be completely faulty. I thought--stupid me--that swearing set people apart in a crowd, making them noticeable. That was clear enough from my experiences as a child at home and in early school.

When my younger sister Lynn swore, my folks would lecture her. Any kid in my classes who swore would be taken to the principal's office. I was shy and fearful of both lectures and principal's offices, so I decided not to take my chances. I wanted to fade into the crowd, and not swearing seemed to help.

It worked well enough until I became an adult. Now, I realize that it's abnormal, and really noticeable, when a person doesn't swear. It's hard to believe that people notice the absence of something in a person's speech, but I can assure you, they do. Even though I don't talk prissily or blink in an alarmed manner whenever someone says something I wouldn't say, people are always apologizing to me for their language. If I had a dollar for every time I've heard, "Pardon my French," I could afford to fly to France and hear the real stuff.

I am convinced it is because I don't swear that whenever someone mentions not being able to say something in "mixed company," I am the mixed part. Several years back, I was sitting in a staff meeting listening to one of the guys at the conference table complain very colorfully about something, when he interrupted himself with a "Sorry, Beth."

"That's OK!" I said. But by then, all of the other women at the table were demanding that he explain why he'd apologized to me alone. It was really embarrassing. I was definitely not fading into the crowd.

Another drawback is that when people notice you don't swear, they try to get you to. "Come on," they say. "I won't tell anyone." And: "Just a single 'F.' You can whisper it."

"What's the deal with you?" Eric once asked, after a failed round of trying to get me to say "Shh!" and "it" in a connected way.

"I don't know," I shrugged. "It just wouldn't be ... me."

And that's about as close as I can get to articulating my aversion. It isn't because of how I was raised or because of religious beliefs. It isn't because I think swearing would make me sound vulgar. It's just that, after all this time, I'm certain that swearing wouldn't suit me, just as certain garments look dumb on certain figures. The F-word would be my verbal equivalent of a brown terrycloth jumpsuit. I'm sure of it. Or I'd say the S-word, and instead of sounding sincere and tough and offhand, it would come out all cute, the way it does when my mom says it. People would laugh at me, and I'd end up drawing even more attention than I do as a non-cusser.

"Would you say 'hell'?" Eric once prodded me.

"Sure. Hell. I can even say, 'Go to hell.' "

"Then why not ... ?"

I shrugged again. Why try to explain that a part of me recognizes I've got a personal record going here? Do I want to break my cuss-free streak after maintaining it for over three decades? Do I want to deprive myself of my occasional fantasy about getting really mad at someone who is familiar with my usual vocabulary, and having the energy to say my first "F you!" to tremendous effect?

As Jeni and Eric would say, F no.

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From the September 19-25, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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