No one ever heard my grandmother, in all her eighty-three years, utter a bad word. I can only once remember her even raising her voice. “It’s all fouled up!” she cried then, shaking a broken TV set. She said it with such frustration and despair that it expressed at least as much as any curse word might have. In fact, besides the time I heard a four-year-old in my brother’s playgroup call his sister Mary-Ellen a “fuckindamnshit,” it was the most shocking thing I’d ever heard.
Her husband, my grandfather, was considered foul-mouthed in the family; his language was a constant cause of distress to her. But in fact, he didn’t use real swear words either—certainly not compared to that little boy. It was usually a savage Goddammit! Or Hell’s Bell’s! His worst outbursts were reserved for his weekly gin game. It was then that he’d reach for the worst epithet of all: “I’ll be dipped.”
“I’ll be dipped”—said with a vehement emphasis on the last word that hinted at incipient violence, and with an Arkansas accent—was all the scarier because we weren’t sure what it meant. Sheep dip? Boiling oil? As a grown-up, I’ve heard it since in the South (or in its cruder form, “I’ll be dipped in shit!”) but it’s always a benign expression of surprise. Never does it convey the menace that my grandfather’s version did.
It’s true that curse words tend to be ugly—guttural, coarse, basic—but then, any word can be made ugly. There just needs to be enough rage behind it, the way something innocent can be turned into a weapon.
The funny thing is, it works the other way, too. I’m thinking of another incident involving my grandmother, this one at the kitchen table after dinner one night. We were playing Boggle, as we often did; my grandmother excelled at word games. The little egg timer had run out of sand and it was my grandmother’s turn to read aloud the list of words she had found in the jumble of letters. As usual, she had a lot: SQUARE, JAMS, TRUCE. And then she paused. “I wasn’t quite sure about this one. C-U-N-T. That’s a word, isn’t it?” She looked around the table inquiringly, while several of her adult children dissolved into helpless laughter. “Does it mean something funny?” she asked, looking bewildered. At length, one of my uncles explained. She went white, and stood up and walked out of the room.
It was the first time I’d heard that word, too. Maybe that’s why I’ve never found it as awful as I really should.
Sadie Stein is a contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.