Knitting is, for a writer, a sublime way to multi-task. If one is lucky enough to find an engaging project that isn’t too fiddly and doesn’t take up too much of your brain, and lucky enough to have a cool room to sit in with only the bubbling of an aquarium for company, one can knit away, writing in one’s head, and come out at the end with a sock and something to say.
As I was knitting along on my sock tonight, I finished the ribbed cuff (the easy part) and confidently began a rather complicated herringbone stitch pattern for the leg, a 12-stitch repeat with all manner of YOs and PSSOs and to-ing and fro-ing. Things went well for the first row, then faltered in the second. I decided to un-knit the offending area, and quickly got into a tangle of un-YOs and semi-PSSOs and I was uttering “oy”s and becoming PO’d and things devolved until the sock was completely FUBAR*, then it was not a sock at all anymore and I started meditating on swears.
I grew up in a mostly swear-free household. In the early 1960s people didn’t just toss off mating slang in a cavalier fashion the way they do today, at least not the people I knew. “Crap” was a daring term in my crowd. “Fart” was about as far as anyone would go, as in, “That old fart!”
My dad was a repressed Methodist, and the worst I heard him say, at the times when he was banging around in the basement trying to fix something, was “hell” or “balls”. I was too innocent, in those days, to understand what the latter term meant exactly (I was probably about 7 or 8 when I first heard him use the word this way) but I knew it was not nice.
My mom was a little more creative. She was something of a potty-mouth, which was probably a result of hanging out with 3 little kids all day. “Poop” rolled off her tongue easily, though only figuratively, of course. Another of her favorites was “foop”.
Somehow we’d never picked up that standard Midwesternism, “shoot”. “Heck” wasn’t for us, either, nor “Jeez”, “Jeepers”, “Gosh”, “Golly” or any of the things even wholesome kids said in Disney movies. Mom said “Oh, dear” a lot, and we gave her a lot to say “Oh, dear” about.
It was only after about 1969 or so that Mom started saying “shit”. One of her favorite lines became “She wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if she had a mouthful”.
I didn’t pick up the habit of swearing till after I was married, and even then, I didn’t swear much. It always seemed much more fun to call someone a “blackguard” or a “scoundrel”, to describe specifically what was wrong with something than to toss epithets around. It was only when I lived alone for several years that I began to swear in earnest.
This dark period coincided with a Presidential administration I didn’t much care for. In fact, every time our Supreme Leader’s face appeared on TV, I was tempted to throw footwear, or at least the remote, at the screen. Since I didn’t want to damage my sole companion (and I had TiVo, for goodness’ sake!) I usually settled for shouting a resounding F***! at the screen and turning off the TV. This is what humans devolve to in a short time without the benefit of polite society.
My vocabulary constricted. That one four-letter word, like a smack to the chops, was so satisfying to say in so many situations: The talk-radio caller who goes on and on, the annoying commercial played for the fifteenth time in an hour, the horrible ‘70s song playing in the supermarket, the blown fuse, burnt toast, dust, you name it.
And then I moved in with housemates, including a young child. Now, even when I had a mouthful, I could not say “shit”. I could not say F***. I could not call someone a thing that rhymes with “gas-pipe”. I could not refer to someone as something that shares a shape and a first syllable with “dill pickle”.
For a while, I had to think carefully every time I opened my mouth. I found myself uttering the ever-useful “oh, dear” a lot, feeling more and more like my mother. But after I had been in the household several weeks, something awful popped out of my mouth.
Yes. You guessed it. I said “shoot”.
*If you have been asleep or off the grid for the past 60 or 70 years or so, FUBAR stands for F****d Up Beyond All Recognition.