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WTF: A Personal History of Swearing

At the age of sixteen, as I was about to leave for college, my mother and stepfather gave me a lecture about swearing. I was the daughter of professionals, swearing was low-class, they said. Plus, I was a girl. What would the young men I met at mixers think of me?

Until then, my parents had never paid attention to my shits and fucks. I was still very young, had skipped two grades and I knew, even if they didn’t, that the swearing was bravado. I felt taller, older, safer, and more transgressive when I swore, ready to leave home with an arsenal of curses. I didn’t have a Teddy Bear, or a Snoopy, or any other transitional object to sneak under the pillow in my dorm room; swearing was it.

My parents weren’t native English speakers so I deluded myself that there was a chance they didn’t understand these delicious words. I don’t know if my mother ever swore in German or French, her two languages before arriving in America, and it was only years later, when I had acquired some French—merde merde merde—and taken a beginner’s class in German at NYU’s Deutsches Haus, that I figured out something about German I’d never realized: every imperative sounded like a swear word to me—achtung, achtung achtung. Oddly, my teacher was from Salzburg where the German is “soft,” similar to my parents’ cultivated, Viennese German. But that made no difference. The death camps surfaced in my over-active imagination and I couldn’t concentrate. And that is one reason I was there. I wanted to transcend my visceral hatred—and fear—of the German language, my parents’ mother tongue. No wonder they only ever talked to their children in English, I thought, as though the German language itself, its intrinsic, percussive evil-ness, had led to the Holocaust.

I remember the first day of class and the“why are you here?” interrogation. One person was an opera singer—lots of librettos in German—another was a business woman—lots of travel to Germany, another had a new German girlfriend, and so on. Then it was my turn: “How is that most of our English curse words derive from German words and not French words though English has also descended from French ?,” I asked. “Is there an explanation?” I had been working on etymologies for a textbook company and had tinkered with swear words in several languages. I knew I was right, I did not want to be challenged, I lied about why I had registered for the class. Luckily, I was not there to make friends.

At the break, I went out into the hallway and ate a peach to calm myself. There was the teacher right behind me, her hand on my shoulder, gently asking if I was okay. I was not okay. I wish I had been able to use WTF in that moment, but it hadn’t appeared yet in our swearing lexicon. And it’s really very tame, isn’t it, compared to What The Fuck with its implied, rhetorical question mark?
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