Cuss Control Hulton Archive/Tim Boyle
By Amy Phillips Penn
“The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low
that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”
— George Washington


“Your brother’s friend Matt said a very, very bad word today,” ‘huff and puffed’ my mother. Before we could even try to pry, trick, or whine it out of her, she continued, “He said, ‘F*ck, I want my mommy.’”

Now we had one very, very bad word to add to our vocabulary, courtesy of our own mother.

In the making of Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous lines of all times — “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” — was said to have been fined $5,000 for the “damn,” and was fought over in court, while the Hays committee even battled and lost over the phrase, as God is my Witness.

My, my… how the winds have blown.

I was raised never to say “damn” or “hell.” “Darn” and “heck” were a euphemistic junket pudding textured substitute. “Darn” and “heck”? How were we ever to express ourselves?

We knew to address our elders as “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.,” while “Ms.” inched in, cloaked as a pushy arriviste. If a parent’s close friend offered the rare gift of calling them by their first name, it was often preceded by “Aunt” or “Uncle.” Our teachers were all addressed the same way. We didn’t even knew what their first names were until the yearbook showed and told on them.

Along with forbidden words came affectations of speech. Something had to give.

Some of us learned how to speak through our noses. I came to a yanking seat belt stop with that one, after my sister told me that I sounded like a fog horn.

Her generation fared no better; they zigged where we zagged, and went Valley Girl with the word “like” interjected after as many real words as possible.

“I like don’t want to, like, do my homework, you, like, know what I mean?”

Legend has it that when my brother was in the upper school at Trinity, he told some first graders, “Dig it, if you want to rap, split.”


A classmate of mine could even sneeze affectedly. It was sealing wax on her snottiest of identities.

Where oh where did my language control button go? I may have spent too much time in barns, but even my non-horsey friends ring out with words that cling to asterisks in print. Even the asterisks are fading from title only, to title sometimes.

I make a mental note to myself to keep a plug in it.

This is no way to cultivate children who are thrilled by capturing captivating, explosive words that will get them the kudos of shocked attention, or as time goes by, maybe not. Today in private schools, some students are permitted to address their teachers by their first names. If they had tried this in my time, it would probably have raised the stuttering level among students.

And that’s way not cool.


“Those who are easily shocked… should be shocked more often.” — Mae West

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