“Son of a b—h,” I swore as the book I was carrying dropped and landed squarely on my big toe. It hurt, but the curse made me smile. It’s one of my favorites, thanks to my father.
When I was around 18, a sophomore in college and feeling quite adult, I tried out the B-word in conversation with my mother while relating some indignity caused by a professor of mine. My father, a sixth-grade dropout and a child of the Depression, but nevertheless a man well schooled in Yiddish and American profanities, walked by. He did a double take, then mildly advised, “If you’re going to curse, do it correctly. The expression is ‘God damn, son of a b—h.’”
At the time, my father’s “lesson” was embarrassing. Instead of coming off as sophisticated, I was taken down a notch and schooled by my father in the nuances of expletives. And yet, it gave me an appreciation for the art — and value — of a well-phrased curse.
We all swear, of course. I haven’t conducted a scientific study on the subject, but I’d swear that swearing is a universal habit.
I speak, or more accurately I studied, a couple of languages, so I’m proud to say that I know a few choice phrases in Russian, German, Spanish, and French. Even one in Finnish!
But it is with great tribal pride that I say that Yiddish curses are my favorite. I mean, I don’t know of a language or ethnicity that has produced anything to rival the endearing enmity of these zingers (from Joe Singer’s 1977 compilation “How to Curse in Yiddish”):
May you be bled dry by leeches,
but enough blood should be left
for the bedbugs, lice, and mosquitos to have a good meal too,
May your husband’s father marry three times,
So that you have not one,
But three mothers-in-law.
May you make a widow and orphans happy – your own.
Ouch and oy vey.
I used to have a dictionary of Russian obscenities and curses. Besides the usual array of Slavic-style F-bomb invectives, the dictionary had an extraordinarily large number of curses related to flatulence. This makes sense, given the era in which the dictionary was published, the mid-1970s. Communism and the command economy were at full throttle. Markets, and vegetable markets in particular, provided a limited selection. Cabbage and more cabbage was the vegetable of choice — the only choice. Hence the nonstop black humor and cursing about flatulence.
I’ve misplaced that Russian dictionary. I hid it when my children reached reading age. (The last thing I needed was my sweet-faced babes trotting off to their Jewish day school armed with an X-rated arsenal of fart jokes!)
Sadly, despite my squirreling away that dictionary and my determined efforts to be genteel, I apparently was a fairly foulmouthed mom — at least if you take the ear-witness accounts of my children to heart. They claim I was a little “expressive” in my language. I guess the expletive-laced habits of all those years as a hard-nosed, hard-driving reporter were hard to break!
And I confess, I do recall one car ride when my daughter, sitting in her car seat, patiently instructed her just-starting-to-speak baby brother not to say the word “shit.” She sweetly explained, “Only Mommy gets to say ‘shit.’ ‘Shit’ is a bad word. So don’t say ‘shit.’”
This sisterly lecture prompted the baby to singsong the word “shit” the entire car ride home and proclaim it proudly and loudly in a greeting to my mother as we opened the front door. Who got in trouble? Me. Shit! I mean, sugar.
What can I say? Who can I blame for my cursing proclivity? My father? My Russian and Jewish ancestors?
As I think about those early Russian and Yiddish curses, I see them as a folksy, earthy art form, offering heartfelt reflections on people’s lives, economic realities and day-to-day worries.
Today’s American four-letter profanities seem boring and simplistic by comparison. F-this. F-that. The word is used so frequently that there should be a warning issued: F-ing overuse of the F-word leads to severe damage to health, hearing and sensibilities. And no matter how loudly an F-bomb is hurled, it will never equal the power of one good “May you …” Yiddish curse!
Therefore, in an effort to upgrade the quality of contemporary curses and with a nod to my heritage, I offer three curses of a middle-age Jewish mama:
May you never run out of toilet paper,
but may it only be one-ply.
May your tweets always be one character too long.
May you forever live under a cloud of poor internet and cellphone reception, except in an emergency when your children need you, God forbid.