The dirty words we dare not say

My parents instilled in me a bone-deep hatred of gross terminology. It makes being a grown-up tricky sometimes

Topics: Coupling, Life stories, Real Families,

The dirty words we dare not say

I was minutes before a second date with an Irish guy I liked a great deal when a text from him popped up on my phone. It said something along the lines of, “If you’re late, I’ll have to kick your butt!”

It was meant to be flirtatious, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. He’d used the dreaded b-word. Why oh why? This could be a problem for us. I was going to have to say something. God only knew what other awful words the Irish might use.

As we sat across from each other at a candlelit table, he reached for my hand, and instead I handed him a napkin onto which I’d scrawled two of my most hated words. “Listen.” I smiled at him. “I know this is weird, but if you could keep from saying these words, it would be really great.”

He eyed me warily, perhaps wondering if this was a standard American custom — the word exchange. He flipped the napkin over, and read aloud: “Moist. Butt.”

I instantly regretted the order in which I’d written them down. This was certainly not the romantic imagery with which I intended to kick off the night.

“I have a problem with certain … words,” I sputtered. He nodded slowly, and I waited to see if he was going to excuse himself, hop a cab to JFK, and slip quietly back across the Atlantic.

- – - – - – - – - -

When I was growing up, my family developed our own unique form of communication. This kind of makes sense, as we are the size of a small Sioux tribe — I have six brothers, one sister, and 13 nieces and nephews — and while our language may lack the majesty of the Sioux, it is nearly as voluminous. We call ice cream “beluga,” a remote control a “mocha” and bathing “souping.” Partly this can be attributed to my father, who loves wordplay, and will happily address anything or anyone with gibberish. He found his children’s early attempts at speech hilarious, and he held onto our garbled words, encouraging the mispronunciations.

However, there is little doubt that a big part of our family’s special language can be attributed to my parents’ minor Freudian hangups. They absolutely abhor “bathroom words.” They share such an intense aversion one wonders if this wasn’t what united them to begin with. I picture them meeting — my father, 6-foot-4, handsome, a golf enthusiast and virtuoso insurance salesman, approaching my mother, 5-foot-7, the former Miss Clark County.



“Would you like to have dinner sometime?” He’d wink. “And maybe later, we’ll have a baseball team’s worth of children?”

“Why I’d love to!” My mother would flash her blue eyes, discreetly adjusting her bouffant.

“Excellent.” My father smiles. “Oh, and by the way, I hate all words related to the excretory system. Maybe we can make our children hate them too?”

“Wonderful!” My mother beams.

It’s easy to imagine the scene. After all, my parents have been married over 40 years and still hold hands. And while they have many other things in common — a mutual love of iceberg lettuce and watching the television at ear-shattering levels, to name two — perhaps one of their greatest bonds is a disgust for those words that rhyme with shmart, shmoop and shmee.

As you can see, they successfully passed this visceral loathing on to their children, as I cannot even type the actual words without shuddering. Nor can I, at the ripe old age of 35, stand to hear them spoken.

Perhaps not surprisingly, my parents’ modesty spilled over into s-e-x terminology as well. To be fair, we didn’t exactly live in Berkeley, Calif., with 9-year-olds openly shouting, “Mommy, my vagina itches!” This was the ’70s and ’80s in the suburbs of Indiana. Many families employed a certain slang with these words, and not just because “rectum” is a difficult word for a toddler. For many, it’s a given that girls have their “coochie” and boys have their “weiner.” But not us, thank you very much. A brief dictionary sampling displays words that were all our own.

Boo (verb) — to defecate: “Mom! The baby just booed in his pants.”

Tink (verb) — to urinate: “He just tinked into a root beer can while driving!”

Tote (noun) — both the male and female genitalia: “Jo kicked Marty in the tote!”

Bo (noun) — buttocks: “Where’s the Benadryl? A bee stung Graham on the bo.”

Giving him elbows (verb) — breast-feeding: “Mom is busy. She’s giving the baby elbows.”

(That last one conjured confusing imagery of my mother lactating from a fold in her arm.)

My mother maintains that our code was established not just in defiance of the shmoop shmee world order, but also because it allowed us to communicate in public about more delicate issues without embarrassing everyone within earshot. And her plan worked well. Try to do a quick translation of the following: “Mom, I just booed, and now my bo burns.”

See? Our secret code saved her dignity, and everyone else’s.

But moving through the world with our own special language also presented challenges. On Halloween, when a well-meaning classmate handed me a Tootsie roll wrapped like a ghost in a wad of toilet paper with a decorative sticker that read, “Boo!” the association was immediate, and the chocolate treat was thus rendered inedible. And no matter how handsome Bo Duke looked when he jumped into the General Lee, I could never get past the image his name conjured.

Perhaps the trickiest part of having our own personal phraseology, though, was making the transition into adulthood. It was always a trial meeting new friends or potential love interests, and then forcing them to convert and speak as you dictated. It’s tricky to tell someone they can’t say certain words or you will gag. It’s even trickier to get this across without looking like you spend most of your time in the attic eating paint chips and styling your doll collection. But at the same time, it must be done. You don’t want to start quietly loathing your date simply because every time he says he has to “pee,” a small part of you dies.

One of my brothers once broke off a two-year relationship with a girlfriend who dared to defy our word fascism. After she suffered a minor, accidental flatulence incident, my brother stared at her in horror, as though she’d just pulled the family dog’s bloodied head out of her purse. To make matters worse, she chose not to slide under the table and cower in shame, as one would expect, but instead, she rolled her eyes at his disgust, and shouted, “Jesus! It’s only a fart! Get over it!!”

At that, the death knell sounded, and she never graced our door again.

I can relate. I’ve had the “word conversation” with countless people over the years, and it’s always a gamble how they will respond. Lucky for me, that Irish guy I liked so much did not flee the table that night, or back away with a nervous look in his eye, as if I had just offered to come stand over him and watch him sleep. He was either brave or frozen with fear, but fortunately for me, he decided to stick around. We even married eventually, and over time he was forced (as everyone is) to accept my family vocabulary.

But David is Irish, and he came to me trailing his own stream of nonsense words, which meant, for the first time in my life, I was given a taste of my own medicine. I had to learn about “cacks” and “chancers,” and that it wasn’t a term of endearment when he called me a “big balloon.” The first time he saw a sign that read “Do Not Feed the Pigeons,” he laughed and waggled his eyebrows. I had no idea “feed the pigeons” was an Irish term for self-pleasure. (Why? Pretend to feed some pigeons. See?) We were both guilty of this whole word scramble business. It’s just that mine was a product of parental brainwashing, while his was more of a cultural brainwashing. Regardless, David was in no place to criticize my language quirks. A man who says he has to “go for a slash” when he has to urinate, but then uses the phrase “taking the piss” to imply he’s joking around — well he can’t really dispute the silliness of the word “tink.”

Back in our courting days, we delighted in learning every little detail of each other’s jargon. There could be wonder in discovering something as mundane as the other’s term for diarrhea. (Him: “The skitters.” Me: I am going to sit very, very still until we can pretend we aren’t talking about this.) But now, as settled, married folk, our patience with each other’s word weirdness has waned slightly. If David garbles something unintelligible that results in yet another round of “whats?” and “huhs?” I sometimes just want to sigh and ask him why, if someone is annoying him, he can’t just say they are annoying him? Why must it be that they are “getting on his tits”?

And David, for his part, now occasionally delights in torturing me by unleashing a torrent of words that he knows will make my ears bleed. Just the other night when walking home, he randomly began a monologue about f*rts and b*tts, and were it not for the faint sing-song quality his accent lent those wretched words, I might have shoved him in front of a passing bus. As it was, all I could do was laugh. At him, for sounding like a kindergartner at recess, and at myself, for responding just as I would have in kindergarten: with horror.

At the end of the day, I know that no matter what we might call our body parts or bodily functions, he is now my family. And it both delights and surprises me that we have the beginnings of our own special language. As the years go by, and we chatter and eat and kiss and move together through the days, our words flow and settle around us. Some might be angry, some insipid, some may sound like the mutterings of Ewoks. But I know all of this noise knits us closer. The words become mashups, they combust and combine, twisting into the secret code of our own tiny family unit. Just as they once did for my insurance salesman father and beauty queen mother, as they held hands and faced the future, and tried to pretend that flatulence didn’t exist. The language of family is wholly unique, and to speak it is to be fluent with the people you most love, as well as the people who drive you the most insane.

Johanna Gohmann has written for Bust, The Morning News, and The Chicago Sun-Times. Her essays appear in "The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010"; "The Best Sex Writing 2010"; and "A Moveable Feast - Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World." Her website is JohannaGohmann.com.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>