Friday, August 21, 2009

My Native Tongue

by Helen E. H. Madden

I'm back from Chicago, and very happy to see a topic of discussion that is near and dear to my evil little heart - bad language.

I take pride in having a certain mastery of swearing, or as I like to call it, my native tongue. I grew up in a household where understanding the nuanced differences between "God dammit" and "God DAMMIT!" were crucial to knowing when to ask for a raise in my allowance (the first indicated minor annoyance on the part of my father, and he would hand me any amount of money to get me to stop pestering him; the second indicated he had just realized I'd dropped his favorite book in the toilet, and perhaps I'd better hide than ask for a raise). Yes, my father was quite a man of words, most of them being "God dammit" and "Son of a bitch!" And I learned well from him.

It was in college that my natural tendencies came out in full bloom. One simply cannot be a cadet without learning the finer points of linguistics. For instance, while in college, I learned when to call someone a cock-sucker versus when to call them a butt pirate. Army ROTC programs encourage the study of languages, and I was more than up to the task of fulfilling that particular educational requirement (although they did insist I study Japanese for a year in addition to enhancing my native tongue, no idea why).

I never did learn to swear in Japanese, or in any other language for that matter, but I've traveled enough to realize I can make myself well understood no matter what country I'm in when I swear. For instance, taxi drivers in Italy will go much faster if I start swearing about how I'm going to miss my plane if they don't FUCKING DRIVE! And over the years I've even learned how to manipulate the lingua franca much the same way my dad did. Many is the time, during my days in the Reserves, when people would come to me to ask that I volunteer for this assignment or stay late for that project, only to walk away quickly in the other direction when they heard my voice rising in a thunderous "God DAMMIT!" I avoided a lot of unnecessary work that way.

So yes, I swear, quite a bit, and with an expert's flair. But being a mother of two small children these days, I've had to tame my wild tongue. I recalled having written something on this very same subject a few years back, shortly after the birht of my youngest daughter, Pixie. I went trawling through my personal blog today and found this, from June 8, 2006:

Now I will be the first to admit I swear a lot. Much more than your average mommy does. I've said it before, I got my degree in swearing courtesy of the US Army. I take to foul language like it was my native tongue, and when I'm really torqued, I revel in the imaginative use of blasphemous phrases and scatological terms. I'm a writer. Creative language is second nature to me. But when Princess came along, I tried to cut back on the dirty words. I had to swear whenever I nursed during the first three months because it hurt so badly that it was either swear or castrate my husband. Outside of that, though, I tried to cut back. I really curbed the habit the first time Princess tried to repeat a certain four letter word that I usually reserve for computer malfunctions. Nothing like seeing your nine-month old pull herself to standing, shake a tiny fist at your PC and shout, "Fa!"

As Jenna pointed out in a comment on Ashley's post yesterday, a study has been done that shows swearing may help alleviate pain, and my snippet of blog post above only underscores that idea. But if this is the case, then I have to wonder. As much as I swear, does this mean my life is naught but the most glorious, exquisite agony to be endured?



  1. Hi Helen,

    Great post. Is life the most glorious, exquisite agony to be endured?

    Sounds like my life :-)



  2. Ash,

    I sometimes think that's why I get along so well. I can laugh at the ridiculousness of the pain in my life, thus things really never seem so bad. Even the worst moments in my life had some humore in them!

  3. Great post, Helen. You seem to know yourself so well, and have a good grip on your life.

    Why do I feel like I'm barely hanging on, sometimes?

    *Jenna stomps away green with envy, all the while, damn well knowing she could never have been in the army- {{shiver}}!*

  4. I learned how to swear in sign language, and not just the middle finger. A friend of mine taught me some ASL (American Sign Language), and now if I'm in public and with my kids, I simply cuss others out privately:)

  5. Jenna,

    I don't know how well I know myself, I just know what I've observed in other people. Some family members are prone to nasty mood swings, and while some of it may be genetic, I often think a good deal of it is self-inflicted. I never want to be as miserable as I've seen others become. So I look for the joke. And I swear, as the occasion suits. It keeps me happy ;)

  6. Molly,

    I love that idea! The best swear words are the ones never spoken aloud, but screamed inside one's head. Remember the old Bill Cosby routine, where he talks about how growing up he thought his father was an idiot because he could never finish a sentence? Some days, *I* can never finish a sentence because of the swear words waiting to leap out of my mouth and kill someone!

    I need to learn sign language.

  7. Helen, me and you in a sign language class. Yes! What a hoot that'd be. LOL

    I remember vividly when my son was just 11 months old, he was beginning to pick up some words. A bit slower than his sister was and he didn't speak as clearly. We sat at the dining room table one evening and the little dear ask for a fuck. He meant fork. I about fell off my chair laughing. Hubby wasn't quite so amused but he did smile.

    From then on, we used spoons at the table. LOL That lasted a few months. See, I didn't even have to do anything and a nasty word came out.

    Your post really just adds to what I already know. Each person, or character in a book, has their own personality, their own dialogue and we must be true to them. I swear, not a lot, but I do swear when I feel the need. I curb the language in public where children might hear it, but if I'm in my house, stand clear. *G*

    Great post. Really gave me some things to think about and I love that.


  8. Jude,

    Oh yes, Butt Pirate was quite the popular term in ROTC. Not a politically correct bunch, those cadets.

    Characters in books do require their own individual speech patterns and language, thought when I write I try not to take it to extremes. I just finished recording a story for the podcast where the dialogue takes place between Prince Charming and the Frog Prince. Prince Charming was easy, but croaking out Froggie's lines was a bit... interesting.

  9. Hi, Helen,

    I laughed out loud at your image of Princess shaking her fist at the computer. I know how she feels...I've been swearing at mine for the last week, as I try to switch from real mode Windows to virtual Linux.

    Thanks for a great post!


  10. Hi, Helen,

    I laughed out loud at your image of Princess shaking her fist at the computer. I know how she feels...I've been swearing at mine for the last week, as I try to switch from real mode Windows to virtual Linux.

    Thanks for a great post!


  11. We used to have a neighbor whose favorite word was 'fuck'.

    My kids went to spend a weekend at Grandma's and when we picked them up, Mom said, 'We need to talk. Both kids use the 'f' word profusely.'

    I closed my eyes and started to explain about the neighbor, and how I'd talk to her curbing her usage around the kids.

    And then my mother continued...'I've told them repeatedly the word is 'Pass Gas!'

    Relief! I had the wrong word!!

  12. Lisabet,

    Oh yeah, the computer gets sworn at more than anything else in the house, and I'm not sure what we'll do when the kids have to have one of their own. May start a whole new trend of swearing around here!

  13. Molly,

    I love it! What usually happens around here is that my mom will start to swear, and then catch herself when she realizes the grandkids are listening. That's always fun to watch.

  14. Hi Helen,

    Like any other word, a swear word has its place as a kind of verbal exclamation point. The problem that I am encountering is that swear words have become primary verbs and adjectives, used in place of common vocabulary. It used to be a joke to say about someone, "Once he's said f..., he's told you all he knows." Now such words seem to constitute an academic discussion with appropriate credentials.

    Randall Lang


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