NOBODY IS BORN WITH their vocabulary, just the potential for one. We begin learning it at birth. Whether through listening to one's elders, reading, taking in audio or visual media, or eventually, in school, word by word our storehouse of text fills. I have not gotten so old and feebleminded that I can't remember exactly where I picked up certain words. I have been batting around a post on that topic, which would also give you some insight into what sort of stimuli influenced me early on. The story behind one word, however, is funny . . . and a bit perilous.
I believe in freedom of expression, but I also have a sense of tact. Merely because one can use a given word or phrase, it doesn't mean one should. This applies most strongly to profanity. Expletives are a seasoning, not the main dish, and one has to prepare the menu with the diners in mind. Fan I may be of such curse-laden fare as Scarface or The Sopranos, it doesn't mean that I am going to quote these works in every context. People look at you a little strange if you get your Deadwood on and, say, greet the father of the bride with a hearty, "Congratulations, cocksucker!"
Among grownups of reason, with whom the ground has been prepared carefully, I nevertheless believe one can broach any topic and discuss it rationally. It is in this spirit, then, that we proceed.
I am going to tell you how I first heard, and learned the meaning of, the word cunt.
Ah, the C-bomb. I do not use this word. I barely even use the word tits, not even in the expressions "tits up" or "ripped to the tits." I can think of no more demeaning objectification of women than to use cunt, even if it does, like fuck or shit, originate centuries ago when the mincemeat pie that is English was still cooling on the great green windowsill of Britain. Believe me, I'll use the shit out of fuck a million times before I enter the launch code on the C-bomb. On those very few occasions when I have become infuriated enough to utter it — even among men — I have regretted it. Even in my private journal it does not appear. I have never heard it at my poker game, which is a sausage-fest and does get its share of earthy guy talk. As wide as my reading has been lo these many years, when I ran across it several times in the first 20 pages of Tropic of Cancer, I had to force myself to continue. It is never used in the South Park movie, which otherwise rode its R-rating straight through the Seven Dirty Words.
But I had to learn it somewhere.
This is how.
The year was 1981. I was in sixth grade. As a way of allowing students to decide what language they would take, my junior high school had kids take a sampler quarter each of French and Spanish. The second semester was devoted to Communicative Arts, which we had in addition to Art class, and which could best be described as applied art, versus the general art teaching we got in Art class (e.g., two weeks in clay sculpture, two weeks making a giant version of some common item with cardboard, two weeks of stamping inked potatoes on oak tag, etc.).
One day in this class, two of my classmates began snickering among themselves. By this time, I was known as a "good" kid, someone who wouldn't get into trouble, who was not only smart but fairly geeky (this was right after the summer of The Empire Strikes Back, and I still hadn't calmed down). So the more rowdy kids liked to try and tempt me into trouble. I therefore recognized this sort of snicker when it emanated my way.
This time, they tried to gauge how many swears I knew. The class was poorly supervised, so you could talk at leisure and whisper "bad words" without being caught. I did know fuck (which, as a young child, I thought I had coined) and shit (which, around the same time, I employed on an even younger kid one day at the park, which got me a stern talking-to and what today we would call a "time out"). I also knew a range of euphimisms and double entendres, a phrase that, unlike most of my classmates, I could actually spell even before the sampler of French earlier that year.
I had much to learn, however. "James," asked one of them with a leer, "do you know what a cunt is?"
I had no idea, but from the way the kid asked, and the reaction from the kid next to him, I knew it wasn't clean.
"No, what is it?"
"Maybe you should ask Miss [whatever the teacher's name was]," the second one said. I knew that was a bad idea.
"I don't think so. What is it?"
"It's a unit of electricity," said the first kid, joining the second one in a fit of snickers.
Now, as foul as this word is, that is a pretty funny line for a sixth grader, I have to give him that. Replace the underscored terms in the following sentences with our mot du jour:
"The sockets in Europe are all screwed up. All my plugs are for 110 volts, and they need 220 volts to work."
"The new hydroelectric plant is expected to bring 6 megawatts of power to over 120,000 homes in the Valley."
"Remember, it's not the volts that kill you, it's the amps!"
No way was I asking Teach the definition of this word. So what was my brilliant idea for researching this lexicographic dilemma, in the days before Merriam-Webster online and Wikipedia?
Simple. I asked my mother.
I never had a sit-down with my parents to get the scoop on "the birds and the bees," but neither had I made any mention to that point that I knew the basics. (A surprisingly frank book on the topic was on the anatomy shelf in the children's stacks of my town library, which described the entire process.) However, they had not raised me with any extreme prudery, aside from sending me to bed before the more adult fare came on WHT. I was even allowed to listen to the soundtrack of Hair, which if you recall, is by no means all as radio friendly as "Age of Aquarius" or "Good Morning Starshine." In fact, when the term fellatio was used in the song "Sodomy," I asked my mom what both of those words meant, and she said it was something that happened during the act of love. (The latter one might say a bit much about my parents.) So I had had blue language defined for me in the past. Just . . . nothing this explosive.
So I walked into the kitchen that afternoon after school and asked, "Mom, what is a cunt?"
She paused in her preparation of dinner, and to her credit didn't instantly feed me a hunk of Ivory Soap or drive me to church for penance, as some of my friends' parents would have. "Where did you hear that?" she asked evenly.
"Some kids at school asked me if I knew what it was, and that I should ask the teacher."
"It's a term for a woman's sex organs. If anyone else at school asks you if you know any other words like this, ask me first and I'll tell you, okay?"
Now, see what she did here. She didn't threaten me with dire consequences if she ever heard me say it again. She didn't ask me to squeal on whoever said it at school, or for the name of the teacher in whose class I heard it, so she could call the principal and demand some sort of redress. She defined it calmly, and in asking me to direct future inquiries along these lines to her, expressed her desire not to hear that I've been using this language myself.
After this initial exposure, I'm fairly certain that I didn't hear the word again until high school, when I saw one of George Carlin's cable specials. I guarantee you that I laughed, as did my parents, who watched along with me.
How might my approach to the word have been different had I been punished on the spot? Would I have reacted against this by placing it in heavier rotation? Would I have objectified women with other terms, in my actions, in my relationships with them? It's tough to say if that might have been a turning point in my development. All I can say is, even as other curse words slowly made it into my rotation as needed among friends and even with my parents, this one has stayed pretty firmly locked up.
At least until Ann Coulter becomes secretary of state.