Swearing Up a Storm

Back in the '60s, using bad language felt like striking a blow for freedom, and it didn't hurt that it also drove our parents crazy

It's my birthday. When I answer the phone, the excited voice of my 4-year-old grandson greets me.

"Happy birthday, Grandma!" he says. "I love you!"

I say I love him too and his father picks up the phone. Or so I think.

"Happy birthday, Mom, wow, you're, what is it …"

"72," I say a little glumly.


"Yeah. 72. Seventy-fucking-two," I add for emphasis.

There's a marked pause, long enough for me to realize my son has not picked up anything—the phone was on speaker. His voice changes radically, dropping down several levels.

"Juju," he addresses his son. "That was a bad word. Grandma used a bad word. We don't use that word."

Grandma, who just did, is terribly embarasssed. She's also extremely annoyed, remembering all those years she didn't swear until she realized she was the only one in the house restraining herself. Remembering all the times during those years she herself was deeply embarassed by one of her sons erupting with the worst possible word at the worst possible moment, even though she herself was keeping a tight lid on her own speech for all the fucking good that did.

Grandma also feels it was a little counter productive to point out her slip, making sure Juju understood what he'd heard. Nothing like handing him a live grenade, she thinks sourly. Her son's decision to outlaw swearing has already led him down some strange paths; on the road not long ago, searching for a euphenism for "asshole," all he could come up with was "penis-head," a poor substitute which Juju nevertheless latched onto. How great was that?

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But it's his kid, his rules.

"Sorry," I say, shortly.

I'm not crazy about the idea of small children swearing either; it's why I cleaned up my own act when my kids were young. It was at that point it struck me—we were probably the first generation to have this problem to any great degree. We were, in fact, the first swearing generation.

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Oh, other ages swore, of course, but not commonly, not constantly, certainly not in mixed company and with both sexes joining in. Most members of my parents' generation just didn't use certain words, which is why they packed such a wallop when they showed up in literary works back then (an effect that has been lost for all time).

My own father never, so far as we knew, uttered a single swear word. Once on the road, his patience strained to the max, he muttered, "Watch it, bud" at another driver. This breakdown of the social order, for so it seemed to us, was so rare, so unusual (and of course, thrilling) that the intersection was forever known as Bud Street to my sisters and I. Still is, 60 years later, in fact.

"Daddy heard so much of those words when he was in the Navy, he never wanted to use them," our mother explained. But of course it was impossible to imagine him having used them even before the Navy.course it was impossible to imagine him having used them even before the Navy.

My mother was different. As a feisty young woman, even after marriage, she had used what passed for strong language back then—calls for damnation, exhortation to the usual deities. She never let me forget that at age 5, I had come to her, earnestly begging her to stop, since none of the other mothers did this.

According to my mother, this childlike plea turned the trick, though had I known she would use it as a battering ram for the next 50 years to get me to watch MY language, I certainly would have rescinded it on the spot.

For the most part, the so-called Greatest Generation foreswore swearing, at least in polite company, once they'd come home from storming Normandy and liberating Paris. My generation, on the other hand, swore. We used all the words on George Carlin's famous list, and a few more besides. Coming of age in the '60s, riding the crest of social revolution, swearing seemed like striking a blow for freedom. It was a way of announcing who you were, of weeding out your friends. And of course, it drove our parents crazy, which didn't hurt.

It didn't come all that naturally at first, but we did our best. I know I did. I had heard all the arguments (invariably put forth by our elders) that using such words reflected a lack of imagination, a dullness of intellect—but I was buying none of that. To my way of thinking, these words brightened up comments and anecdotes no end.

Others agreed. In college, for instance, there were the Collette tales, which were ubiquitous. Collette was a delicate sloe-eyed French girl who somehow found a way to introduce the word "fuck" into every interaction, a habit that the guys found hysterically funny. The Collette stories all had the same punch line: And then Collette said fuck! So Collette turns to the guy and says fuck! Then Collette gets on the bus, looks out the window and says fuck! and so on. The crowd would then dissolve in laughter at her wit. (I know there are some who will believe I am exaggerating here. I can only swear, in the archaic courtroom sense, that I am not.)

I had gotten pretty comfortable with swearing as I reached my mid-20s, married, gave birth and saw no reason to change my habits. My firstborn's tendency to mangle certain popular exclamations—he pronounced it "aslo," for instance—struck everyone as adorable, and gave my sisters a good word to yell out the window on cross country road trips.

When did I begin to change? Was it when my youngest climbed up on at table at McDonald's and hollered "motherfucker" at the top of his lungs? Maybe.

At any rate, as a parent, I came to understand the appeal of raising non-swearing children, and when my son decided to ban all such words from his house, I understood that too.

But no question I still harbor a fondness for those days, which included so many admirable activities, like sit-ins, picket lines, marching for civil rights, peace, social reform but also included swearing up a storm, because we were young, we could be silly—and, in truth, it actually did feel freeing, breaking those rules, maybe for young women more than anyone else.

So, maybe that's why I used it, on my birthday. Over a half-century later, it felt like a salute to another age.