I’m downstairs reading, there’s a commotion upstairs, little feet bounding down the stairs, my daughter appears, arms akimbo and angrily proclaims “Brother’s being a total git, as usual.”
“Git,” for those of you who are not familiar with British slang, refers to someone who is stupid or silly. In the arc of verbal harshness, it’s a bit harsher than calling someone an idiot, but it’s not quite as harsh as calling someone, say, a wanker or, in American parlance, a fucking idiot. “Git” is actually derived from “begat,” and in that way it was used as another way to call someone a bastard. I know of only one use of the word “git” in literature, and that’s John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired,” where he declares,
I’m so tired, I’m feeling so upset
Although I’m so tired I’ll have another cigarette
And curse Sir Walter Raleigh
He was such a stupid git.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons to call Sir Walter Raleigh “a stupid git,” but that’s not my interest here.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t say to my daughter, “Hey, that’s a nasty word—don’t call your brother a git.” She started referring to her brother as a git about six months ago. It’s not a term I or my wife use, so I’m not sure where she picked it up. My son, ever conscious of context and meaning, rarely refers to his sister as a git, but he has other mildly offensive ways of describing her when he’s frustrated with her.
When I was growing up, no one cursed in the house. I rarely heard my parents utter expletives, and they expected the same from my sister and me. I’m a dutiful first-born, so I took that directive and didn’t even use curse words out of the house. This was difficult, as I played sports and, well, kids curse when they are playing sports. I took to cursing in my head, basically suppressing the words from public utterance. So, for instance, if I missed a layup in a basketball game, I wouldn’t say anything aloud, but to myself I’d scream, “Goddamn it!” This, needless to say, is untoward, and I was conflicted: I understood that you couldn’t just go around saying whatever you wanted whenever you felt like it (even though in America today that seems exactly how you gain political prominence), but at the same time, responding to frustration (a missed layup or a blown defensive play) with an expletive seemed like a verbal natural reaction so, why repress it?
Over the years, I learned to curse; that is, I figured out when it was appropriate to curse and which words were appropriate in certain situation. It was generally always okay, for instance, to curse in the company of my male friends, for instance but never in the company of adults and only on certain occasions when women were present. These ‘rules’ or practices evolved, at least for me, to the point where I’ll pretty much curse in the company of anyone now. When I first started teaching, I would never even think about using expletives in class. Now, I used them for effect, or when I want to make a point—it’s a way of getting their attention.
With my kids, I’ve been a bit more circumspect, but I haven’t shied away from cursing in front of them. They have searched out those boundaries on their own, as well. After my son read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox he was taken by Bogus, Bunce and Bean yelling, “Dang and Blast!” after they failed, again and again, to catch the fox. In response, my son started yelling, “Dang it!” every once in a while. It sounded really close to “Damn it!” and he knew it, but he tested it out. Sometimes, when I think they are least expecting it, I’ll drop in a word to surprise the kids. A few weeks ago, both of them came down for a midnight snack and when my daughter discovered there was no whipped cream for her apple pie, I said, “Well, I guess you are shit out of luck.” My son just shook his head, as if to say, “Dad, you are so weird.” My daughter, though, put her hands to her mouth, her eyes got as big as saucers and speaking through her hands she asked, “Brother! Did you hear that?” Last night, we were riding our bikes home from dinner and my daughter rolled her front wheel over my ankle. I did not say, “Ouch.”
I can think of only one literary scene where cursing is taken up as an issue. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), the one-time Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been banished to a remote island where he raises his daughter, Miranda. The island is inhabited, though, by Caliban who Prospero quickly both “civilizes” (he teaches him language) and turns into his slave. At one point in the play, Caliban complains to Prospero and Miranda that, hey, he was here first, and he while it’s nice to have names for all the lovely things on the island, he enjoyed them just as much, if not more, before Prospero came here and basically took over. Prospero and Miranda, with their colonial, fearful, minds, lash out at Caliban and accuse him of being ungrateful: We clothed you, taught you to speak, took you into our own home, for God’s sake, they bawl, and this is is your way of saying thanks? And Shakespeare, bless him, doesn’t allow Prospero and Miranda, at least in this scene, to have the last word because Caliban turns to them and spits out:
You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
Caliban’s remonstration against Prospero and Miranda, of course, is different from what I’m getting at in regards to my kids: Caliban is saying that the language that was given to/forced up him wasn’t a gift at all. Language acquisition for Caliban was, well, a curse. And Caliban, I think, sees cursing as a negative reaction—it’s all he has and it’s not much.
But, cursing is a natural part of who we are and how we react to the world. It can be done artfully and skillfully, or it can be done in a thoughtless and lazy manner. My kids are going to curse, and all I’m trying to do is set an example for them to do it well.