I was in my 50s before I realized that the nature of swearing had changed.

Miley Cyrus at Kids' Inaugural

Miley Cyrus at Kids’ Inaugural (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Young women in the office were doing it.

And, they were calling each other, affectionately, a term that I’ve always considered one of the worst insults for women, starting with a “B.”

I supposed that swearing for women in their 20s was a way to show that they could talk just like men.

Indeed, a young woman journalist asserted, a couple of years ago, that swearing was how she reassured her military compatriots, when she was embedded, that they didn’t have to treat her like a fragile glass statue.

She wasn’t going to dissolve into tears under the stress of combat.

But, I never picked up the habit, or, perhaps, was never in a situation where using such language made sense.

Although my mother threatened the soap in your mouth punishment that was popular in the 50s, we knew better than to use bad language and really only got in trouble for talking back.

When I was a teenager, swearing seemed unladylike and childish.

My parents didn’t swear, so I assumed adults didn’t.

I didn’t know any women who swore, though occasionally I heard boys and men do it when it fit the occasion.

I believed that the way to be treated respectfully was to treat others respectfully, and swearing didn’t seem respectful.

I was a Mom two months after I turned 21.

Anyone who has been a parent learns quickly that children watch us and repeat what we do with uncanny accuracy.

The first time parents hear their sweet, angelic toddler swear, “Godda**it!” forcefully, with exactly the right intonation, at exactly the appropriate moment, like when they’ve just slammed their fingers with a hammer or fallen and skinned a knee, it is usually enough to make most parents quit swearing, at least, around their children.

While they try to hide their laughter at the incongruity, they explain to their toddlers that “we don’t use such language.”

It’s a lie. After all, where did they get it?  But, it is a lesson in appropriateness.

I was late getting my college degree, but started working almost as soon as the ink was dry on my diploma.

Swearing in an office is generally considered unprofessional.

It poisons the atmosphere if bosses swear at their employees, who, of course, cannot respond in kind.

And, maybe, computer folks just aren’t a swearing culture.

We came of age in the hippie-dippie, love everybody 60s.

Mutual respect was built into the profession because you can’t tell by looking who the next genius is who is going to build a software or hardware tool you can’t live without.

When our younger son was in elementary school, my husband and I decided to take him to one of the movies then coming out about the war in Vietnam.

My husband remembers it as probably Hamburger Hill (1987) or Full Metal Jacket (1987). I remember it as probably Platoon (1986).

Though our son was still young for such violence, we thought he should understand something about the war that owned our country for nearly ten years and set the tone of our own early marriage years because of the forced separations.

After the movie, we asked him what he thought of it.

“They swore a lot.” This in the face of graphic combat injuries.

“Yes. They were under a lot of stress.”

The movie, Children of a Lesser God, (1986), starring Marlee Matlin, came out about the same time, and I remember being stunned that deaf people had signs for swearing.

Somehow, that fact took me from an image of a people separated from society by their disabilities to people just like anyone else.

By my 40s I realized that people did swear, just not around me.

I assumed it was because I didn’t.

It didn’t feel awkward, just polite, like their mothers had raised them right.

As adults, they could adjust when they found themselves in situations where bad language was inappropriate.

In my 50s, I became a grandmother.

I wasn’t going to become the cigarette-smoking, motorcycle-riding, free-wheeling grandmother who radiates “too bad if they can’t take a joke,” with whom I associate swearing.

I was going to be the “You may drink milk or water at my house; we’ll have oatmeal for breakfast; you will have fruits and vegetables at least twice a day; and, let’s go sledding, play in the creek, throw Frisbees and have tea parties” grandmother.

Swearing didn’t fit into this image.

It was about this time I found out that my views on swearing and coarse language were hardly unknown, even to strangers, though I don’t remember ever starting such a conversation with anyone.

At a Karaoke bar near my home, a young man who was about to perform came over to apologize to me in advance.

“I will be using some graphic language,” he offered.

“Thank you for thinking of me. I’ve probably heard it all before.”

He came over afterwards to make sure he hadn’t offended me too much.

“It’s not that I haven’t heard that language before,” I told him, admittedly stunned.

“It’s just that I’ve never heard anyone sing those words before.”

And, now, of course, we have 20-year-old Miley Cyrus twerking on national tv so her audience will take her seriously as an adult.

To a generation for whom OMG (Oh, my G.d) and WTF (What the f..k) are punctuation marks, it must seem quaint.

Still, until I start smoking or a singing career, I can’t imagine swearing.

What you do is your business, just not around my grandchildren.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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