I hate the word but truly that’s what I am. At least about this. And since this essay is about words, let’s just do it, shall we? Just say it.
I’m a really awful prig. Thankfully not about everything. Really, I can even sit through most R rated movies like a big girl with hardly a raised eyebrow, good for me. But I am prig nonetheless. I am a word prig.
I’m not actually one of those tightly-wound grammarians self-righteously correcting complete strangers when they trip up on their tenses. My use of proper grammar, while decent, is what I would consider a work in progress.
But I am a lover of words. I love how they sound when spoken honestly and with conviction. I love the voices in my head when I read, which can sound like everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Ella Fitzgerald to my mother, depending on what I’m reading. I love using them, choosing just the right one with the elegance and panache of Audrey Hepburn knotting a scarf around her neck. I love how certain words have a caress, others a rumble, and still more a resonance.
And like many lovers of words I am actually not a big talker. I think this is because choosing the right words takes time. Choosing the right word can be like trying to find just the right perfectly-shaped leaf on a windy fall day.
I’m a prig too, because I hate swearing, but not because I think swearing is a bad thing. People get mad, they have a right to get mad and they certainly have a right to express it. But that’s where things have gotten sticky. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call a word a word.
When I was a little kid at summer camp we loved to swear, we lived to swear. We could find a way to squeeze swear words into the most innocuous sentences imaginable. !@#$% pancakes for breakfast again? Is it !@#$% sunny today? Want to play !@##$% jacks with me? Over and over and over. Just saying things we weren’t supposed to say felt fantastic. Empowering. Pleasantly bad.
Everyone was doing it so everyone did. And then we stopped. We did not stop because we were evolving into polite little humans. We stopped because by the time we returned home the swear words had lost their fangs. Say @##$% enough times and it’s boring, it just loses it’s power to shock. There were so many more creative and interesting ways of doing that.
Constant swearing is like starting in a bag of stale jelly beans. They’re awful, they’re unsatisfying but you keep plowing through feeling that if you keep going you’ll be sated. Never works. You’re just left with an empty bag and a sickly-sweet coating in your mouth.
That obviously wasn’t the taste I wanted on my tongue when I had little kids at home. Or on my lips with the children I work with at school. But there was still the fear of knee-jerk swearing in front of them. And so I worked up some milder alternatives, training myself so these would be the first words I’d grab for in tense moments: “Phooey” “Dang” “Crumb” and so on. Said with appropriate fury or conviction, as is the case, they usually work just fine.
This is true except when I’m almost hit by some self-absorbed woman in an SUV, careening haphazardly out of the local gourmet store, with a latte in one hand, a cell phone in the other. I am totally off the wagon here, so to speak, and fling swear words out like useless cannon fodder. But it’s utterly frustrating. The swear words I’m spitting aren’t ugly so much as impotent. No matter the awful words I’m saying, I am not actually saying what I want to say. Not getting the reaction I want to get. That’s the worst. No wonder swearing matches so often escalate to chaos like teetery tower of Jenga.
Using exactly the right words, quietly and with dignity, can truly quash complete fury though. I’ve seen it.
Ages ago when I lived in Brooklyn I was heading into the subway station during rush hour. A woman was standing at the token booth, furiously screaming every vicious epithet imaginable at the clerk. It wasn’t clear what sparked her anger but she was completely letting loose. When she paused for breath the token clerk said calmly, “I’m sorry, madam. I hope you have a better day tomorrow.” End of conversation. Game, set, match.
We all yearn to be understood. I don’t want to carelessly use words as mindless weapons. If I do, then how is anyone going to truly believe me when I say that I care or that I love them?