An excerpt from my book An Effort to Understand, made timely once again by the creation of a new t-shirt. Read on. —ed.
I never used the word “douche” until the last few years. My college roommate used it, and I thought it sounded mean and dismissive, calling a woman a douche.
I still don’t call women douches, but when it became popular to call men douches—and to describe them and their douchebaggery as “douchey”—I got on board the Douchebagwagon.
I don’t like the idea of calling a woman a “cunt,” either, and so far, I’ve never met a woman who I wanted to call a cunt. But I just delight in calling cunty men cunts.
It’s also fun to call women “dicks.”
It was a woman—my mother, in fact—who got me interested in swearing in the first place. When I was five years old and supposed to be asleep in another room, I heard her talking to my dad, and casually referring to someone as an “asshole.” I began to giggle uncontrollably at hilarious rudeness of rhetorically reducing a whole, complex and spiritual human being to a dark orifice an inch or two in dirty diameter. I remember thinking quite literally: This swearing, it’s for me.
Mom was a mentor in this area. When my father was out of town on business trips, she used to set the oven timer and let my sister and me say anything we wanted for an hour (except for “cunt”). When we ran out of ideas, she helped us, suggesting terms like “double-decker pecker wrecker,” and the complete sentence allegedly spoken by a World War I ambulance driver explaining that his rig broke down: “The fuckin’ fucker fucked.”
My first boss Larry Ragan used to say, “If you say ‘shit’ in front of a lady, what do you say when you have a flat tire on the Brooklyn Bridge.” I puzzled on this, until I realized, You say shit again!
If I ever have to teach a class the basics of storytelling, we will spend the first two sessions watching The Aristocrats, and then I will devote the third to answering any questions they have, and then I’ll dismiss them for the semester. Everyone who understands exactly why I showed them The Aristocrats gets an A, and everyone who wondered why gets an F.
I don’t allow my daughter to say “crap” in the house, because when I hear that word, I think of the real thing. (Which doesn’t happen to me when I hear “shit”—which she isn’t allowed to say either, of course, because everyone knows “shit” is worse than “crap.”)
I invented the term “fartballs,” which Scout is allowed to say at home, but not at school. She doesn’t bother. She doesn’t swear at all, even though when she was four or five, she confessed that she thinks swear words all the time—whenever she’s frustrated at something.
And finally: I hate the word “cuss,” which sounds too fucking much like “puss.”
P.S. Did you know that Chicago has three streets that rhyme with “vagina”?