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April 8, 2011

It was the best chemo jacket ever. The nurses loved it, and so did I, although my mother did not, and once I accidentally wore it to my kids’ conservative Lutheran school where it earned me hairy eyeball from the principal, who is, I discovered, much more my pal when I am not wearing a jacket with an obscenity plastered across the boobs. Or boob.

It was a great gift from a great friend, my brother’s now ex-girlfriend who remains one of my favorite people, a baby blue hoodie from the fashion house French Connection U.K. with the brand’s logo proudly displayed on the front. Baby blue is a terrific color on me, so I wore it around as much as I could, even in Texas, where even a mild obscenity slipping past your lips is enough to cross you off of the Christmas card list for a lot of people.

Foul language doesn’t fly here, although Texans as a whole have a rich lexicon that includes a vast resource of substitutionary profanity, not just equivalent synonyms like “fouled up” and “freakin'” but creative ones like  Cheese and crackers! instead of Jesus Christ! (say it out loud), and I really and truly have heard almost all of my friends say “shoot” when I would say “shit” or “fudge” when I would say “dense confection made of milk, chocolate, and sugar, often with nuts.” It drives me bonkers, the use of cleaned-up expletives. I keep telling myself I am going to start cursing in French because I refuse to lower myself by the use of weakened words, but I keep forgetting to, and just say the bad ones.

When I went to Baltimore to visit my brother last month, he and I got into a long discussion about how happy I was to hear people casually say “Oh, fuck” on the street when, for example, they stepped into ankle deep slush.

“Don’t people curse in Dallas?” he asked. He was astonished.

“Nope. They say things like “Gosh” and “Sugar.”

“Holy shit. That must be like living with Jimmie Olsen, or Robin.”  He kept blinking at me. “They really don’t say bad words?”


“But they still use the same expressions, only fake.”


“Don’t they know that it’s the exact same thing?”

“They don’t see it that way,” I tried to explain. But from one seventeenth-generation New Yorker to another, my pleas for him to understand and accept that some people really and truly find foul language offensive fell on deaf ears.

“Well, they’re wrong,” he said.

I agree with my brother. An expletive is an expletive, whether it’s clean or dirty, but tell a Texan that they sound the same to my ears, only sillier, when they say, “Oh freak” instead of “Oh, fuck,” and they would look at me as though I were the freak from another planet, not just another fuck from New York.

It’s a look I know well, because I get it whenever I order pork barbeque or blue cheese dressing. Technically, I am from another planet, the Planet of the Yankees. It’s a familiar experience; in Japan, there was a specific word for us, gaijin, which means, roughly, “inhuman barbarian.” In Texas, they just say “foreigner.” I”m not making that up, and one way to tag yourself as “not from around here” is to cuss. It’s why I do it.

The anti-profanity police occasionally tell me that using bad words just demonstrates a lack of vocabulary. I keep a mental tab of people who tell me that and when I am around them, I disengage the filter that keeps out all the big words that intimidate people and make me look more pretentious than I’d like. Not a shit list — an excrement list.

I think it’s a vestige of mid-century American culture which is still going strong here in Dallas. It’s probably what makes it such a nice place to live for people like me, who look like me, and sound like me, except for when I stub my toe.

Back in the fifties and early sixties, using bad words was a surefire class marker, and not a good one.

It’s changed.

Our cultural role models curse, the good ones, not just the kids on South Park. My friend the lexicographer Jesse Schleidlower, educated at the University of Chicago and at Oxford, authored a book called the The F Word. It’s a wonderful resource for a writer, and it’s where I learned the expression “Bald headed chicken fucker.” I understand a new edition has just been released, or shortly will be, and I’m so excited. I like to keep it out on my living room table, but my polite friends keep quietly shelving it when they come over. I think they’re afraid their children will see it, and I wonder what they must think of my art.

Robert Sutton, a professor of business at Stanford recently published a book called The No Asshole Rule, based on an article he placed in the Harvard Business Review on the condition that they print it as he wrote it.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, except in Texas, the modern class marker is a comfort with profanity and the ability to integrate it into literary prose.

Sometimes, the best word is the dirty one, like wearing a sweatshirt with F.C.U.K across the chest to chemotherapy. A lot of people wear buttons, caps, or t-shirts that proclaim “Cancer Sucks,” but that phrase makes me uncomfortable in its vulgarity.

I’m a literary hypocrite.

Our motives are the same, me and the Cancer Sucks button wearers: to lessen the power of cancer by naming it, or cursing it. Back in the fifties, the word cancer itself was forbidden, spoken only in a whisper, taboo in the extreme. The ability to name the enemy, and thereby weaken it, is a direct result of the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies, a product of the zeitgeist of letting it all hang out, joining an encounter group, never holding back.

Perhaps we’re all, except Texans, more comfortable with words like fuck and shit and so forth because the meanings of those words have become an open part of our culture. We see advertisements for laxatives every time we turn on the television, and during the actual prime-time programming, we see characters in bed together.

I do believe there is more of a place for privacy than we’re given in popular culture, but I’m glad that a lot of what used to be taboo is now perfectly socially acceptable.

When I was my daughter’s age, breast cancer was the subject of whispers. It would have been a lot harder for me to have fought my disease had I also had to bear a burden of shame.

As I proclaimed every time I wore my sweatshirt, F.C.U.K that.

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  1. Anne Slater permalink

    I see casual use of profanity more a generation marker than class marker. Unless the fuck or shit is used as every other word in the conversation, in which case the user is definitely young and in the military…… (in my experience, anyway).

  2. gale permenter permalink

    If you want to hear cussing in Texas you should hang out with our friends sometimes. Maybe it’s just Dallas ’cause mid-cities area doesn’t “fudge” it. :0)

  3. joel permalink

    We and our friends curse all the fuckin’ time—perhaps you’re hanging out with the wrong Texans.

    About ten years ago, I volunteered for a few months at the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field. During my orientation, the tall, white-haired, World War II-veteran head volunteer began by peering over his reading glasses at me and saying, “Welcome, young man. You’ll get along with us all just fine so long as you don’t say anything more offensive than ‘fuck’ or ‘God damn’.”

  4. Aunt Lee permalink

    I find I use less and less profanity the older I get. Haven’t the vaguest idea why. I love the brevity and hard sounds of the Anglo-Saxon words.

    Your grandfather asked your grandmother please to disallow any cursing in the house and the family because he had had all he could take on the front lines in Europe.

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