And adults did it too? A brief reminiscence

“Fuck the children!”
—George Carlin

Growing up in the late 1950s I was naive enough to believe that adults did not curse—for a while. In fact, like so many other kids back then, I even thought that perhaps some of them did not know how to swear. No, not my parents, for sure. I recall an incident one evening in our tiny Queens apartment over a Laundromat when my folks were hosting a party. There I was, a second-grader serenely playing in the corner of the living room, having my toy soldiers killing each other off, when I overheard my father’s friend Pat say to him, “Ha, ha! Grand pricks.”

I looked up, astonished. It turned out that he was referring to the label on a bottle of cognac. Undoubtedly it was of the plonk cru variety, probably wrung from an old Frenchman’s sleeve, and deservedly besmirched, but how could adults know that word? After all, up until then I had never heard anyone older than a teenager use it. Later, I sneaked a peek at the bottle and read the words “Grand Prix.” I wasn’t precocious enough to know what that meant, but I sure as hell knew that this was not how you spell “pricks.” My safety returned.

It is to my Uncle Don that I reserve the proper thanks for finally enlightening me and straightening out the matter. It was a summer Sunday of the same year, and I had recently made my First Holy Communion. As a good little Catholic boy back then, I knew that I would be cast into hell if I did not go to mass, even if my aunt and uncle did not care to join me in my salvation. Uncle Don reluctantly got up, dressed, and dropped me off at St. Uvula’s (or whatever). Later, when he came to pick me up, the front of the church was lined with double-parked, over-sized sedans—probably with other disgruntled uncles picking up their nephews. After piling into the big, silver Caddy, Uncle Don stepped on the accelerator, but immediately slammed on the brakes as someone pulled out in front of him.

At that moment he let out an ear-searing barrage that I can still hear today: “You fucking son-of-a-bitch-and-bastard! Why don’t you watch where you’re goin’?!” The reply to his invective was a more intriguing, and no less illuminating, “Go eat a bowl of dicks and go fuck off!” I was a quick study, and as mortified as I was, still digesting the sacrament, it was right then and there I perceived that adults did indeed know how to curse—and pretty darned well it seemed. In fact, I had a new entry for my own vocabulary.

I also realized that I had better watch it, because if I swore, they would know what I was really saying. This was no longer an arcane schoolyard argot. It was the language of the real world. The incident also informed me that just as we kids were holding our tongues in front of our elders, they were likewise holding their tongues in front of us. Could adults be as cool as kids? You bet. Now, go the fuck to sleep!

(Note: This is a modified excerpt from my book Damn! A Cultural History of Swearing in Modern America)

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