I gave up cursing for Lent.
Forty days and forty nights for a kinder, gentler vocabulary: A noble goal and nobler still, I decided to enforce the provision by charging myself $1 for every bad word – that’s $119 for every b-word, a-word, d-word, f-word, s-word and conjugation thereof since March 9, 2011.
I don’t know what the line was in Vegas, but I’m inclined to think the odds were against me: When she heard I was donating the proceeds to charity, my boss vaulted over my cubicle to volunteer Friends of Animal Care and Control’s Spay / Neuter Assistance Program as a worthy recipient. My foul mouth will cover spay / neuter services for two animals, preventing as many as 130 euthanizations from unwanted litters – maybe that’s why Nancy kept sending me emails about Sarah Palin?
So 40 days later, what have I learned? Curing cursing isn’t easy (or achievable), but self-improvement is an ongoing (and worthy) project.
As a child, I remember hearing blue words only once in a blue moon from my folks. Usually it would be an s-word gasped when a knife sliced through a finger instead of a carrot (requiring a trip to the emergency room and its commensurate stitches). To this day, I have never heard my father say the f-word, and I’ve heard my Mom say it only once, recounting the time her father washed her mouth out after hearing her test-drive that word as a child.
Like cigarettes and alcohol, cursing is the first forbidden fruit of a misspent youth. I remember the temptation of their utterance, the magical mystery of their dark power: Why on earth would the technical name for a female dog be a bad word? And why, in the South, was the n-word acceptable in some conversations when taking the Lord’s name in vain was roundly condemned? The s-word made a lot more sense – describing defecation in all its stinky glory – but screaming “POOP!” launched a thousand laughs, while a volley of “SHIT!” sent the tattlers high-tailing it to the nearest responsible adult. At the time, around fourth grade, I didn’t even know what the f-word described, but it must have been something really bad, which made its recitation even more irresistible. And like that initial sip of the devil’s elixir, you either enjoyed the way the words slithered off your forked tongue… or you didn’t. You either gasped along with the crowd of choking smokers… or you didn’t.
I did… oh, yes, I did, but I kept it more or less under control until I lit up the crack-pipe that is sportswriting.
I’ve always had a way with words, putting them through their paces in poetry and prose. What I couldn’t manage on an athletic field, I could describe 10-fold in 10 column-inches or less with 10 minutes to spare. Sportswriting unleashed every pent-up-verb inside me… and the sports department unshackled my tongue. An honest trade more than a profession, sportswriting is a working-man’s world, with its locker-room vernacular of bathroom stalls and barroom stools. No real place for a lady – at least not until Title IX came along and ushered women’s athletics into the arena, dragging us “lady sportswriters” along with them. If you’re keeping score at home, it’s still pretty hostile, even today.
Language, like behavior, is contagious: In the sports department, not only did I learn to score a baseball game and deliver it on deadline, I also learned the black arts of blue language.
Which brings me back to Lent: It’s been a dozen years or so since I hung up my sportswriting cleats, and yet my vocabulary still melts even the most fearless ears – especially under pressure and always on deadline. Though I am neither Catholic, nor catholic in any religious tendency, I feel like I should observe Lent since I’m such a fan of Mardi Gras, and so each year, I undertake some penitence for my pestilence.
A truly catholic Catholic, my cousin Angie explained that Lent is not a finite period for us to “give up” something, only to return to that bad behavior after a 40-day hiatus. It’s more about making permanent manifestations of Christ-like living – i.e., don’t give up candy, unless you’re ready for a sugar-free, lifetime commitment. A lapsed Methodist, I had always thought the 40-day Lenten period required a personal sacrifice so we could share in the pain of Christ’s sacrifice… suffer along with the Son of God in the desert with the Devil, so to speak. Either way, I surveyed the landscape of my sins and asked myself a simple question: “What Would Jesus Do?”
The answer was easy: “Jesus Wouldn’t Drop the F-Bomb.”
Jesus would also be exacting in His accounting. So, armed with my ever-present iPhone and its free Tally Counter app, I set out to clicker-train myself not to say bad words. By the end of Ash Wednesday, I’d tally-whacked my way to $8, on pace to provide spay / neuter services for an entire NBA basketball team and its front office. Here is a typical scenario:
Looking for the stapler on my desk, I send a big pile of paper sailing to the floor (setting up the Lent 2012 Cleanliness Challenge).
“Shit! Now I have to clean this up,” I grumble and then smack myself in the head as I reach for the curse-counter. “Dammit! I just said shit!”
My boss comes over: “That will be $3, please.”
Beyond the accountability of my clicker and my co-workers, I published my pledge on Facebook, where all 191 of my friends could follow my progress – and by follow, I mean lead me hotly into temptation by lobbing nuggets of Congressional budget negotiations against my wall. Still, my friend Kathy, a sports editor, and my cousin Stephanie, a youth minister at a Catholic Church, decided to join my cause, creating our own coarse support group of profaning prohibitionists.
We updated each other early and often – and Kathy even provided scientific proof that our cause was just: Not only were we making the world safe for innocent ears, we were also increasing our pain threshold. Researchers at Great Britain’s Keele University have found that swearing has pain-killing properties for those who don’t regularly curse. Apparently my Mom was onto something when that knife went through her hand and the “Shit!” hit the fan.
And so we have come to this: My Accounting of Sinful Syllables
The F-word – my fickle friend. I have deployed your lovely aresenal in noun, verb, adverb and adjectival forms – sometimes all at once. I was surprised at how easy it was to let this one go, including its rough relative: motherf*****. Sometimes there’s only one word to use and the mom-bomb is it, but I managed to do without for 40 days, and honestly I found that, like foie gras or truffle oil, I didn’t miss its rich deliciousness. The shorthand “WTF?” still has its place in the language landscape: It is as powerful as it is brief – and it’s easier on the ears.
The S-word – one of my favorite adjectives. A dear friend of mine once observed that Alanis Morrisette’s song “Isn’t It Ironic?” ironically demonstrates her inability to grasp the finer points of irony because the things she describes (rain on your wedding day, etc) are not ironic – they’re merely shitty. Sometimes merely shitty is the only way to describe an Alanis Morrisette song. Merely shitty also goes a long way toward explaining the residue of pigeon droppings on your doorstep. Still, there are other ways to describe bathroom habits. Many verbs shoulder the load quite nicely, from the polite: “Pardon me, while I excuse myself” to the visceral: “Excuse me, I have to go punish the toilet.” You don’t have to say the s-word to convey the meaning effectively.
The B-word – Wow. This was hard because I’d agreed to serve on a triathlon team named Bad@ss Bitche$ prior to the start of Lent. Even though my tri-buddy used the Ke$ha Method of Que$tion@ble $pell!ng to help me avoid profanity-laden pitfalls, spell-check doesn’t seem to be too fond of the slutty songstress. That said, whining, moaning, complaining, grousing, wailing, whimpering, fretting, fussing, yammering, carping and bellyaching all serve the verb suitably. The noun? Well, I think from here on out I might just say, “What a Ke$ha!” or perhaps, “That stupid Alanis!”
The D-word – Dammit, I just can’t seem to quit you. This original curse was the hardest to break, and I willingly admit defeat on this one. Though I tried to dam it behind a wall of sweet euphemism, damn just kept bursting forth. Drat and darn and dad-gum just don’t have the gravity. So I’m damned when I do, even if I don’t want to.
The A-word – Variations on the a-word theme tied with damn for the top spots in this devil’s dictionary. Ass is a workhorse of a word, one with no suitable substitute for its compendium of compounds. How dull would my life be if I couldn’t open up a can of whip-ass and kick some ass because I am a badass? Badass is so much better than good. Jackass is so much badder than jerk. Ass is the lingual lagniappe – and I can’t apologize for it, but I learned through Lent that I could (and should) stop flogging it all the time.
The sinful syllables all present and accounted for, what have I learned from Lent?
From the black-pepper damn to the habanero motherfucker, profanity is the spice rack of language. From the meat and potatoes of verbs and nouns to the fruit and dairy of adjectives and adverbs, salty words can singe the ears, but only when used in excess. Rare words rarely used will get your attention, just as they did when I was a child – and that’s a good thing. I have a healthy vocabulary – and an iPhone thesaurus at the ready – so I don’t need to default to damnation, fornication, defecation and canine gestation every time I need to get my point across. If anything, the tally counter has caused me to hold my tongue, wondering if the moment or the subject deserved my invective – and that’s not a bad thing. Is every slight or insult worth my rage, or would a sigh or eye-roll suffice?
And so, with a hat-tip to my cousin Angie, I will continue on my anti-cursing crusade, as it’s made me a more mindful person and we’ve saved some animals in the process.
I’m currently accepting suggestions for new recipients of my charitable collection box. I will not give to causes that I do not think are worthy – so don’t bother sending me the address to SarahPAC – the intention is to do good while trying not to do bad (as opposed to throwing good money after bad ideas). Going forward, my term will be two-months per cause, effective May 1, and hopefully I’ll have to stretch that out to three months because I’m doing such a good job of foiling these curses again.