I’ve never had a problem with the language of the poor. Especially the word “shit.” And then, especially when referring to excrement. For example, I don’t think that saying, “I just stepped in dog poop” is any less offensive than saying, “I just stepped in dog shit.” Tomato, tomato (that expression is a lot less coherent when it’s typed, but you get it–One of them rhymes with potato, the other one rhymes with potato…. Shit). There are just some things that sound better when spoken with vulgar language: “I can’t even walk through here, there is so much shit on the floor.” Or, “I’ll be back in about 23 minutes, I’m going to go take a shit.”
The word “vulgar” comes from the Latin vulgus or “the mean folk.” This isn’t “mean” as in unkind; it’s more of a mathematical mean. The language of the common folk–Not high class, like us. There are a lot of things about language that are meant to separate us from them–“them” meaning the poor and uneducated, and sometimes minorities, who (coincidentally enough) are more likely to be poor and uneducated. And who wants to talk like “those people,” right?
I can clearly remember the first time I said the word “frickin” in front of my mom. It was something simple like, “The dog shit all over the frickin basement (I might be remembering this wrong).” She opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, then made a face like “Ahh, choose your battles.” My family always seemed to draw a line between “swearing” and “cursing.” Swearing (where I come from, at least) was just saying off-color words, whereas cursing was saying words or using expressions that involved God in some way. That was, and is, out of bounds–I cringe every time some kid walks into a new room on Knocking Down Houses (what my kids call Extreme Home Makeover) and says, “Oh my GOD!” So we did what every kids does: We softened it to “Oh my gosh.” When my Grandma was around, she would remind us that Gosh, Jeez, Dang, Darn, and the like were just as bad. Then again, she thought my sister was going to hell for wearing a shirt that said “Budweiser” on it, so…. Yeah. Grain of salt.
One of my early memories of my grandfather is playing pool in his basement. To my elementary school eyes, this man embodied the pool-sharking talent and confident swagger of an older, lankier, Christian Reformed-ier Paul Newman. I watched in amazement as he sunk ball after ball, I’d listen as the ball rolled inside the table, and I wait and watch for that ball to roll into the opening at the one end of the table. Every so often, he would miss a shot. And rarely–very rarely–he would let out his version of profanity: “Corn shucks.” Even at a very young age, I remember thinking to myself, “Paul Newman would have made that shot.” No, I thought “I think that’s how Grandpa swears. I’m 7, and I probably would have said “Son of a bitch” if I missed THAT shot. This is the most pious man who has ever lived.”
On a sentimental side-note, those times playing pool with my Grandpa meant a lot to me. I whole lot. I doubt he knew just how much…. He was just taking twenty minutes to play with his grandson. Take time to play with your kids, y’all. They will remember.
Even back then, I made a moral judgment based on his choice of words. But it’s not about the words–It’s about the intent. My dad could say “What in the Sam Hill!?!?” in a way that was way worse than “What in the Hell?” Hell, I can grunt loudly and not even say an actual word and it could be way more mean-spirited than dropping a giant F-bomb. Not too long ago, I was walking through our room in the dark and I stubbed my toe. I kicked a wicker basket that was filled with books about three feet. Across a carpeted floor. Using only my pinky toe. The kids were asleep, but believe me when I say that the stifled, snarling grunt I made was no more morally right than the neighbor-waking profanity that would have exploded from the depths of me were I at home alone. “Shit” or “shucks,” “son of a gun” or “son of a bitch,” “butt” or “ass,”–I don’t think it really matters. I would rather my kids swear like little foul-mouthed sailors than make another kid feel awful about herself using “acceptable” words. The word “ugly” is.
The thing is: Most of us (not this girl) use language with close friends that we wouldn’t use with people we don’t know very well. When we let our guard down, the people around us instinctively feel safer about letting their guard down. It’s like when your girlfriend farts in front of you for the first time–You know it’s love. Love, or Indian food. So a while ago, I decided that when I’m in a group that doesn’t know each other very well, I will battle this air of pretense with carefully placed casual swearing. I will take this risk of being thought of as an oaf or a buffoon if the reward is people loosening their hold on their veneer of “high class.” Or, I’ll just fart really loud (This may or may not be intentionally for the purposes of group cohesion). Then, if there are guests that actually are so high class that the language of the poor seriously offends them, maybe they will be so offended that they will leave…. And we can start having some fun.