Language is a curious thing. And words are an even more curiouser thing. I have come to this conclusion previously of course, but realized it again the other day. I recalled that, in my family, when I was a boy, there was only one allowable word for ‘buttocks’. And that word was ‘seat’. As in: “I fell right down on my seat today.” “My seat itches.” “I have a pimple on my seat.” There were no other options. The word ‘buttocks’ was too formal, I suppose. Too bulky and too physiologically precise. A little pompous perhaps.
And the word ‘butt’ was coarse and vulgar. Impolite. Uncouth. Not to be spoken within the home. Unless one was talking about the price of pork butts. One could talk about pig butts all the live long day, but not people butts. No, no, no.
‘Ass’ was of course verboten. Shocking. Intolerable. Loutish. It was a word spoken by delinquents at the pool hall. Galoots in a saloon.
And ‘seat’ covered the whole expanse and all the various parts of the ‘buttocks’. Left, right, north, south, up, down and square in the middle. So one could not go into too much geographical or geospatial detail when discussing our derrieres. We didn’t have the language for it. A ‘seat’ was a ‘seat’. Lock, stock and boodle. Kind of like the moon.
Derrieres would probably have been permissible, but we did not speak much French in our house. Ice cream a la mode was about it. Though my sister tried to make a quiche once. And we sometimes inquired about the soup de jour. Well, once actually.
Language was also limited when one talked about our elimination products. Or the acts of producing them. ‘Grunt’ was the word I recall for anything having to do with solid waste. This was both a noun and a verb and was somehow more polite than the words ‘poop’ or ‘crap’. Which were in some quaint and inexplicable way as offensive as the result itself.
‘Shit’ was of course completely out of bounds and could bring out the smelling salts if Grandma was around. It was a delicate age, and Language was everything. A little boy such as myself would have been better off with a mouthful of the real thing than the word itself. The cleaning and disinfection required for the former would take much less time and be less painful than the punishment and penance for the latter.
Similarly, the act of farting was not allowed. At least not out loud. There was absolutely no adult humor to be found in it. In point of fact, there was considerable shame associated with it, notwithstanding the biological reality that we are all active and prodigious gasbags. Which leads one to believe that there was a lot of self-shaming going on back then. Which explains a lot about the 1950s—the Cold War, Nuclear Proliferation, Richard Nixon, etc.
The word ‘fart’ did not actually exist in polite company. Which is to say--Adult Company. Except at the Feed & Grain. It seems like you could say it at the Feed & Grain. And maybe at the Hardware Store. Everywhere else it was no hablo farting.
The allowable phrase was ‘passing gas’. But no one wanted to use that one either. There was a certain and unquestionable disdain for the act itself and especially for those who undeniably dealt ‘em. Where I was from, the act of farting was a misdemeanor. But as you went further south, it got to be a full-fledged felony, punishable by ostracism and a certain degree of infamy. Rule #1 was Let Loose and Die. Rule #2 was Cut Cheese at your Own Risk.
Even the mention of this vile act was frowned upon. Though I recall there needed to be a whole Thesaurus of descriptive words for some of the vile bombs that Grandma passed. Holy Polecats, Gram?! I would strip my gears and drop my transmission trying not to laugh. But never mind. House Rules always applied, and I had no vote in these matters.
Similarly, the word for urinating was ‘urinating’. But as a little kid, I was allowed some slack here. And our word was ‘tee-tee’. And before I went to school and learned the myriad words and euphemisms for this common, little practice, it was the only word I knew. None others existed.
I remember early on being in Dr. Dickie’s office, where he apparently needed a urine sample from me for something or other. He held out the paper cup and directed me to ‘pee’ in the cup. I looked at him quizzically, and he tried again. “Here, go ‘wee-wee’ in this cup.”
I suppose I was staring at him blankly. I have heard that I was exceptionally dense for my age. So he continued: “Here. Go in the bathroom and ‘tinkle’.” Still nothing. “ Piss? Whiz?” He kept trying. “ No. 1? Squirt in the goddam cup, will you!”
I could see he was getting exasperated, and I wanted to understand, but my vocabulary in that area was limited. Then he began resorting to euphemisms. ‘Take a leak’? ‘Make water’? ‘Empty your bladder’? ‘Drain your damn lizard’ eh!”
He had run through practically his entire lexicon at this point, but he may as well have been speaking Swahili. Finally, he was reduced to pantomime. He held the cup to his crotch and with the other hand grasped onto his imaginary wand and began waving it at the cup. I was starting to get it, I recall, when he somehow found the magic words.
'Tee-tee?’ he pleaded. I remember nodding my head, being relieved and thinking: “Well, why didn’t you just SAY THAT in the first place?!” Truthfully, Grown-ups confounded me.
The word ‘penis’ did not come up often in my family. Nor did the word ‘testicles’. They were in a restricted area, subject to the Commandments regarding the-near-occasion-of-sin and such, and consequently out of bounds for all but serious conversations involving medical issues or surgical operations. Both of which I had when I was about 8. It turns out I had an undescended testicle. This left me a) without a spare and b) some very big questions in my little head concerning all that talk I kept hearing about ‘two balls’. I could count well enough by this time, and my numbers just weren’t adding up.
But this mystery (b) was eventually and clinically explained to me, along with the fact that we had waited long enough for it to descend on its own. It was deemed necessary to go in, collect it and put it in its rightful, historical place.
I understood all of this, and it was all well and good. Truthfully, I suspected I could milk this one for some considerable sympathy from parents and playmates alike. And I don’t recall the operation being painful or scary at all. It seemed to me, then and now, an interesting experience. What was painful however were those horribly awkward conversations with adults using the excessively proper words ‘penis’ and ‘testicles’ and ‘scrotum’. They were unfamiliar and uncomfortable and difficult. They weren’t actually spelling out the words (“We’re going to go in and help your other ‘t-e-s-t-i-c-l-e’ drop down into your ‘s-c-r-o-t-u-m’…”) but it felt like it.
It was unbearable. It was agonizing. It was excruciating to be talked down to like that. I would have yelled MORPHINE!! if I had known it could relieve suffering and was available in hospitals.
There was something embarrassing, protective, shaming in their manner. They were trying to protect me, I suppose, from those harsh words. As if the words themselves would somehow harm me, corrupt me. And I realize that it was actually THEIR discomfort. THEIR shame. THEIR embarrassment with those words.
If we had been able to just talk about plopping the other ball into the sack, releasing the 2nd nut into the pouch, dropping another jewel in the old beanbag, we wouldn’t now be having this conversation. “Yes, sir,” they could have said, “we’re going to go in and round up one of those renegade boys of yours and get ‘im back in the corral.” We would have been fine. But no, those were not options in that intergenerational world.
The point is that it was a lot more complicated than it needed to be. Words can stimulate or obfuscate. Excite and liberate or muddle and obscure. They can lift you up or beat you down. Make you proud of your package or ashamed of your nuggets. Language, I tell you, it’s everything.