I first heard the word at a ballet recital when I was six. I was nervously standing offstage in a crepe paper crow costume, waiting to plié awkwardly across the stage before an audience of doting parents. My dance instructor’s son, a charming and mischievous moppet of ten, was whispering to me between laughs, like a good-luck mantra, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
I didn’t know what it meant, but as a fledgling writer who was already scribbling stories in my notebook, I couldn’t wait to share my expanded vocabulary with my parents. So after the performance I hurried home with my family for Sunday dinner, eager to surprise them with my new word. I waited for the perfect moment. Finally, as my mother was serving cupcakes for dessert, I beamed proudly and announced: “I’m not having cupcakes — I’m having fuck cakes.”
Stunned silence. Everyone looked horrified. My three older sisters, my mother, and my father all stared at me across the heirloom walnut table with widened eyes.
No one said anything. I didn’t understand. Conversation resumed, and no one ever mentioned the incident again.
Vancouver, British Columbia
When I was nine, Max moved in with my mother and me. A fourth-generation horse trainer from southern Illinois, he wasn’t simply set in his ways, he “never knew no others.” I was terrified of him at first. His right leg bent strangely at the knee at a crooked right angle, he had a gruff voice and rough skin, and though he was only in his mid-fifties he seemed very old to me.
In general, horse people tend to work, smoke, drink, and cuss more than any other people I’ve encountered, except maybe for truckers. But even among his peers I never heard anyone use swear words as freely as Max. His speech would have been stunted without them. Shit was a common noun. Manure was shit, anything blocking his freshly swept aisle was shit, and when he got angry he promised that the shit would fly. Every horse was a bitch or a son of a bitch; many people were, too. If the goddamn stalls weren’t clean he’d kick your ass, or if the fucking tractor broke down he might have to get a goddamn drink. Anything that didn’t go the way he wanted was bullshit.
I learned to respect his gifts and forgave him everything else, for he taught me to ride and loved me like a daughter. Through those dirty words I discovered his love, in praise that was hard-earned but genuine: “Goddamn, you had a hell of a ride out there, honey.”
Mill Valley, California
I was twenty. My future in-laws were grilling me about how I could support their daughter in the style to which she was accustomed. I tried to tell them that Cindy and I didn’t intend to live by their standards.
“We’re going to pursue our dreams,” I said. “I’m going to write, and she’s going to sing.” Remembering something my college advisor had told me, I said that the best thing we could do was trade comfort for time to practice our art. “That could mean living in a cold-water flat.”
Those last words had the effect of an obscenity on Cindy’s mother. In the weeks that followed, Cindy told me that her mother kept asking her if I was serious about the cold-water flat. I felt a mixture of pleasure and shame at having shocked her, but I was also a little afraid. I hadn’t realized that the words cold-water flat held such power.
Once married, Cindy and I chose comfort over art. We squandered artistic opportunities in favor of the more conventional, safe ones that would keep us out of the cold-water flat, which we’d decided was an unnecessary and silly sacrifice. We became increasingly unhappy, blamed each other, and ultimately divorced.
After the divorce, I moved into an efficiency apartment so ugly and cheap that it would have confirmed my mother-in-law’s worst fears about me. I slept in a bedroll on the floor. There was hot water, but it was unreliable. I wrote.
Bruce Holland Rogers
I go into the 7-Eleven and grab a cold sandwich and a soda. A man in a suit is squeezing ketchup onto a hot dog while two clerks behind the counter laugh over a private joke. A man in a grimy T-shirt and jeans walks toward the cash register followed by a small boy with silky blond hair who looks about three years old. The boy stops beside a candy tray and picks up a Tootsie Roll. He holds it up to the man. “I have, Daddy?”
The man turns. His eyes are dazed but fierce. “What the fuck you want now?” he says. The man with the hot dog squirts ketchup on his cuff. The clerks hush and turn away. The man tells the boy, “You can’t have any shit. You can’t have any till you learn some shit.” He places two bottles of beer on the counter and asks for a pack of Camels, which the clerk hands over without looking at him.
The boy bends to the floor and picks up a scrap of paper. He turns it over and over with his small fingers. Fumbling with his money, the man puts a few bills and some change on the counter. He looks back at the boy. “You listen to me or I’ll have to knock some fucking shit into you.” We freeze. We wait.
Finally one of the clerks slides the money off the counter. He doesn’t even count it.
The man picks up his purchases and holds them toward the boy. “This is my shit, see? We’re here to get my shit.”
We watch them leave the store, but we don’t look at each other and we don’t speak.
On my walks in suburban St. Louis, I used to pass a threatening-looking man who squatted on the curb near a bus stop. He’d frown at me and growl profanities that were nearly unintelligible, but I thought I heard, “Goddamn, son of a bitch, fuck you.” I’d read of Gilles de la Tourettes syndrome, a disorder involving an uncontrollable urge to blurt obscenities. Instead of being alarmed, I merely ignored him as I passed by.
One day, in a chipper mood, I said good morning to people as I walked along. This man was not in his usual place, and I didn’t recognize him sitting on a bench in front of a delicatessen. “Good morning!” I said. He smiled and replied, “Good morning! Goddamn, son of a bitch, fuck you.”
Amused, I imagined a daily ritual. I’d say, “Hello!” and he’d cheerfully reply, “Fuck you!”
St. Louis, Missouri
Back in the seventh-grade, the girl who sat across from me was absent one day.
“What’s wrong with Margaret?” I asked her best friend Clare.
“None of your beeswax,” she said.
I traded her two jawbreakers for the information that Margaret had a special problem. Blood was involved, yet she wasn’t dying or even in the hospital. In fact, she planned to return to school the next day.
“Is it an arm or a leg?” I asked.
Clare extended her palm. Grudgingly I handed over my last jawbreaker. She glanced up at Sister Frederick, who was writing on the blackboard, her beads clicking softly against the wooden chalk ledge.
“Downstairs,” Clare whispered, pointing to her lap.
I stirred at the sexual implications. “What’s it called?” I asked. “There must be a word for it.”
“Swear you won’t tell?”
I swore, my fingers crossed under the desk.
“It’s called a period, stupid. Now shut up before we have to stay after.”
After that, every time I saw Margaret I called her Period. The word stuck as a nickname. “Period!” I’d shout, popping up from behind a hedge. “Period, Period, Period!” I got drunk with anticipation whenever I saw her approach, especially if I was with my buddies. The group of us bellowed the word at the top of our lungs, prancing and hooting, mad with glee at the disgust and anger we were able to provoke in her and her friends.
Margaret doubled over in tears.
A few days later, after supper, my parents sat me between them at the foot of their bed. The mirror above my mother’s dresser reflected their dour faces. One of Margaret’s friends had called, my mother announced. “That word,” she said, pausing until she caught my eye in the mirror, “it’s something that happens when the Holy Ghost visits a girl. There’s a discharge.”
“Helen, please,” my father pleaded.
“Well, he needs to know, Tom. He’s at that age. It’s not something he should be punished for.”
But my father knew better. As soon as my mother left the bedroom, he took hold of my upper arm and squeezed it hard. I yelped in pain. Tears ran down my cheeks as he drew my ear close to his mouth.
“That word,” he said, “doesn’t come out of your mouth again, understand?”
I nodded, wiping the tears with my free arm. He shook me to emphasize his point, then sent me off to do homework.
It was another four years before I learned about the menstrual cycle in high school biology. But from that night on, I never said period to Margaret again.
I want to fuck you. My body is telling me over and over again how much I want to fuck you. Fuck is such a bad, bad word. At least, that’s what my mother said. Then why does it sound so good?
Rape nearly stole fucking from my heart. Nearly wiped out the cell memory of my body, memory of the ancient rhythm of love before there was violence. Love of rock and tree, of milk and blood, of water and fire, hot fire, hot flesh — hot from delight, not cruelty, warm with desire. How did fucking change from journey to invasion, from gift to booty, from breathtaking pleasure to violation?
For me, fuck is a shape-shifting word. It can elicit anger, hostility, fear, and pain. It can paint a picture of sex dogged by assault, disease, and repression. It can make me think of a war zone, send me running for cover. But it can also invoke my passion, go directly to the core of my being. It can make me want to get under the covers and let them warm my back as I warm my way into you.
I dreamed I was inside my vagina. The walls were glistening with silver streams flowing toward a distant light. The shimmering dark depths silently called to me. I woke up thinking, Anatomy doesn’t describe my body. Science cannot tell the story of my infiniteness. Fucking is a journey I take toward this infiniteness with each thrust of you and me, each movement into depths I do not touch alone but which become my own as we reach them together.
I married a horny man. Among the sweetest and purest gestures of his passion are his words of lust, for which I listen with anticipation. “I want to fuck your hairy cunt” seems to me an ultimate truth, whispered in my ear.
As the owner and publisher of a small-town newspaper, I’m often reminded of the power of words. In a recent issue, we carried a lengthy story about a man who shot his wife in the head and then set fire to her body and the house she was in. In the same issue we covered an ordinance passed by our city council that, in my judgment, had little merit. I weighed in with a brief editorial comment: “This new law will have approximately the same effect as a weak fart in a strong windstorm.”
Responses showered in like leaves in an October gale.
I did not keep track of the number of calls, letters, and face-to-face comments, but there must have been dozens. A group of fundamentalist Christians threatened to picket my office. All were offended that the word fart had appeared in print.
I never received a single comment about the story of murder and arson.
Steven P. Keller
My mother has always been a woman of words. She taught me to read and to say the pledge of allegiance when I was four years old. In the morning, she would give me new words, saying that if I used them in sentences three times that day they would be mine to keep. She taught me that words are powerful, that they can create understanding among people, express love and beauty, bring together two souls and heal their loneliness.
But as she grew older she also taught me how words can separate and cripple. For many years, she’d drink for hours on weekend nights. Then she was careless with words, wielding them drunkenly like cleavers — mostly at my father.
On those nights she called him a bastard, pathetic, impotent. Just before the alcohol silenced her, she would lift her head, stare into my father’s face, and pause — an absence of words being her way of getting one’s attention. Then she would say, “I do not love you, and I never did.”
As I shrank into the safety of the darkened staircase from which I listened, I knew there could be no words dirtier than those.
Until I began to develop as a young woman, my younger brother and I shared a room and a bunk bed. Every night before we fell asleep, Wes and I would ponder certain questions. We wondered why Aunt Vivian’s bottom lip was so puffy; why John Lennon thought the Beatles more popular than Jesus; and what Nell, the choir director, could possibly have in her brassiere that molded her breasts into such ferocious-looking weapons.
One night, our talk turned to words we’d seen scrawled on the bathroom walls at school. We knew what hell and damn meant; Daddy was a minister, and though he was by no means a fire-and-brimstone man, there were plenty of parishioners who were. Fuck, however, threw us. What could it possibly mean? Mother always ordered us to avert our eyes if we came upon the word scribbled in a public place, as if the very sight of it would mortally wound us. Fuck must be bad. Fuck must be the dirtiest word of all.
We decided to ask Daddy about it when he came in to kiss us good night. But first we needed to rehearse. A voice that wavered with a suppressed giggle might be confused with what Daddy called a smart mouth. Wes and I agreed we’d both ask the question so its weight would be borne equally by both of us.
The next evening we kissed Mother good night and went to bed. Knowing we had a good forty-five minutes before Daddy would be in, we rehearsed our question again and again until we were reduced to hysterical tears.
At last he came in. He kissed Wes first, then sat on my bed to kiss me. We had less than a minute before he’d leave the room.
Wes charged ahead. “Daddy, what does fuck mean?”
“Yes,” I added quickly. “We’ve been wanting to know.” My throat closed, and heat crept up my neck into my face.
We waited for Daddy to respond, but he said nothing. As the tension built, we realized that Daddy had been stunned into silence. We waited uncomfortably, thinking any response would be fine, even anger, as long as he said something.
Daddy cleared his throat. He cleared it again. Finally he launched into a convoluted story about Judge, the puppy Wes had gotten from Santa a year earlier. Judge was a hyperactive mutt no one could stand to have around. He’d invariably nip too roughly, scratch an eye, knock an elderly person over. Daddy had finally put chicken wire around Judge’s doghouse, sentencing the dog to life in a pen. These days he lay on the roof of his doghouse, a mournful look in his velvet eyes.
Daddy explained to us why he’d had to confine Judge: the dog was just too wild and had uncontrollable urges. Hadn’t we ever noticed how Judge would jump on someone’s leg and hug it over and over, doing that funny dance with his hips? Daddy fumbled to a close and said hoarsely, “Does that answer your question?”
“Yeah,” Wes lied.
“Yeah,” I echoed.
“Good night,” Daddy mumbled, and practically ran from the room.
For a few moments, my brother and I were silent. Then we started giggling.
“What was he talking about?” I asked.
“Dunno,” Wes choked. “I don’t get it.”
That night was the first time we realized that our infallible father had very human limitations.
My mother turned seventy-seven this year. She lives alone in a little house on Belmont Place in New Jersey that’s been her home for as long as I can remember. We’re trying to sell it, but people don’t like the area; my mother didn’t like it either when she and my father bought the house in 1946.
“I never should have sold Lester Avenue,” she says to me, “but they said Pop might die.”
Lester Avenue was her dream house — fit for a Better Homes and Gardens cover, with a pink, ruffly room for her first child. They’d been living there only a year and a half when my father got sick. Soon he had to quit his job at the factory, where he’d worked fourteen-hour days making munitions for the war. From a hospital bed he told my mother to sell the house and go stay with her mother.
But after a few difficult months there, my parents decided to buy another house — Belmont Place, which was old, dirty, and poor. Because my father was in and out of hospitals for years, my mother worked, but their finances never again rose to the level of the Lester Avenue days.
“We were on welfare,” she says, “but only for a little while.”
My jaw drops. “Welfare? You?”
“Well, I was expecting your brother,” she says, “and I couldn’t work. It was only a little while. . . . I never should have sold it.”
I hear the sadness, the self-doubt in her voice, so I give her one of my pep talks. “You’ve come so far, Mom. Both of your kids are well educated. You travel, you exercise, you look great. You’ve really managed well.”
“Don’t tell anybody,” she says.
“Tell anybody what?”
“Don’t tell anybody about the —” She hesitates. “You know . . . the welfare. It was just a little while anyway.”
I was perhaps luckier than most kids who grow up on ranches because I got paid for my summer work in the fields. At sixteen I was chief irrigator, hay hauler, and general ranch hand. Each day I would move the lines of irrigation pipe from one side of a hayfield to the other, twenty yards at a time, until the entire field had been watered. Then the line of pipe would have to be moved back to the starting side. My younger brother would assist by driving a pickup with a thirty-foot trailer, on which I’d stack the pipe.
One morning my brother was helping me move a line in a field that was boggy in the center. When we had loaded all of the pipe, he took off straight across the field, despite my warnings. In the middle he started to slow down. “Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t stop.” But we were driving an old Ford pickup that couldn’t be shifted into first gear without stopping. My brother tried to shift, and as soon as he did we got stuck.
We walked back to the house, hoping to find a tractor we could use to pull the Ford out without telling my father, who had told us explicitly not to drive across that field. Unable to find one, however, we resigned ourselves to finding Dad.
Now, summertime is very busy on a ranch, with more work to do than hours in which to do it, so these sorts of mistakes are not taken lightly. We found Dad on a tractor, baling hay. As soon as I told him what had happened he went into a harangue about how he had told me not to drive across that field and how it was my responsibility to see that we didn’t, even if my brother was driving. He said that if I was going to work for him I’d better save him time, not cost him.
In the heat of the moment I indignantly told him to take his job and shove it.
He came off that tractor faster than a fall on ice, and even though he didn’t yell or strike me or even fire me (which he’d surely have done had I been anyone else), I will remember his words until I die, for he rarely used profanity and never at anyone in the family. I had never in all my life heard him utter those words: “Listen here, motherfucker! No one talks to me like that!”
When I was five, I lived in an old Chicago neighborhood. On nearby streets there were sidewalks bordering crew-cut lawns, front doors with brass address plaques, and steps on which I wasn’t allowed to dawdle. But the alley running through the block was a thriving thoroughfare for me and my friends. There we transacted business, talked about sex, and played to the point of exhaustion. We knew the back doors by the noise they made when they slammed shut, where the anthills were in each yard, and which houses had the fastest gates and the narrowest garage passages through which to escape. We owned the alley.
At the end of our block was a little grocery, owned, our parents had told us, by refugees from a terrible country. We never saw any children there until late one summer day, when my friends and I heard the old screen door open in the distance and turned to watch a kid our age walking a tricycle out the back door. He began slowly wheeling in small circles in the alley outside his door. For several days he came out every afternoon to play by himself, often just sitting on the tricycle, looking at us. We never watched for very long; we were five and totally absorbed in ourselves.
One day we were at his end of the alley when the door opened and he wheeled out his old green tricycle. As the door closed behind him, I could see from several feet away the terrible scars on his face, neck, and one arm, the burned tissue actually preventing his arm from straightening. He looked at us for a second and then, smiling, said something we couldn’t understand.
To me, he looked grotesque, and I was confused by his foreign words. With the cruelty of a child I instantly judged him an outsider. I laughed loudly at him, yelled “Pieface!” and ran back to my own turf, my friends close behind me yelling, “Pieface! Pieface!” all the way. I glanced back only once, but I will never forget the pain in his face. I never saw him in the alley again.
In my time I have told more than my share of people to go to hell, fuck off, or kiss my ass. But my first dirty word — pieface — is the one I would do anything to take back.
I remember wondering why my mother didn’t check on me and wishing she would. I was sitting on my cousin’s bed. My cousin’s friend was also in the room. I was nine. They were fifteen.
They were looking through an old, thick book and laughing. They handed it to me and told me to read the first paragraph. I didn’t smile. I read the paragraph, sounding out some of the bigger words. I remember motherfucker made them roll with laughter. I remember the words hot prick. They made me read the paragraph again.
Joan M. Eric
Hicksville, New York
In 1964, when my cousin and I started sixth grade, we found our classmates were using a mysterious new word, fuck, and a new gesture, the finger. We knew the two went together but not what they meant. Worse, we had the feeling that all the other kids did know.
Instinct told us not to ask our mothers, or any grownup. Desperate to find out, I went to my older brother. “What does fuck mean?” I asked him. He gave me a look that could kill. “Don’t ever say that again,” he ordered.
Finally my cousin asked her friend Sherry, whose father was a musician and let her stay up late. Sherry asked her father and he told her. She told my cousin, and in the field up the street from my house my cousin told me. “It’s a dance two people do when they’re naked,” she whispered.
Half Moon Bay, California
My mom didn’t want her daughters to grow up with a lot of shame or misinformation about how our bodies work, so she was always very open with us about sex. She provided books on the topic and tried to answer our questions frankly and honestly. For some reason I considered this a challenge. I was determined to come up with a question that would rattle her.
One day I turned to her and asked, completely out of the blue, “Is it OK if I masturbate?” I thought for sure I’d embarrassed her this time, but without missing a beat she quipped, “Sure, honey, as long as your hands are clean.”
N. Llyn Peabody
When my brother was thirteen he slammed his plate of creamed onions and broccoli with cheese into the dining room wall. He told my mother to fuck off, and on his way out he kicked a hole in the screen door that my mom had fixed just the week before on her day off. That was the first time she cried right there at the dinner table — previously she had made it to her room. I went off to start my homework.
When my brother was fifteen he came home after disappearing for five days and threw up all over my mom’s good place mats. He was drunk. My mother went into the kitchen, hid her teary face, and pretended to make a cake. I took it upon myself to entertain my friends, who were there for my tenth birthday party.
When my brother was seventeen, my mother got a call at dinner one night from the police. He’d been picked up outside a 7-Eleven after smashing in his girlfriend’s windshield and breaking her jaw. When he was arrested he was topping off the evening with a Coke Slurpee and a pack of Newports. While my mom was gone I chatted with her boyfriend. He listened politely for about an hour and left before my mother returned. I never saw him again. When my mom got home she cried silently on the living room sofa as my brother called her a bitch and took off again.
When I was sixteen, my mom told me she was going to attend a meeting at my brother’s rehabilitation center instead of seeing me in my school play on its last night. I told her I hated her fucking guts. It was the first time I ever cursed my mother to her face, but it was also the first time she didn’t cry at being verbally assaulted by one of her children. She just shook her head tiredly and flipped on the evening news. She didn’t seem to care that I’d used such filthy language toward her, the person who’d brought me into this world. Thanks to my brother, I couldn’t even make my own mother cry. I hate him more than dirty words can ever express.
Summit, New Jersey
When you have a child, you discover how dirty your speech is. Oh, fuck! I say, and Sylvia repeats, Oh, fuck! with a smile. Suddenly a phrase I shouted in anger returns, distorted and evil, from the lips of a two-year-old.
I smile back to disguise the power of that word.
New York, New York
Dirty words are delicious. They slide off the tongue like a skier off a jump, electrifying the air with their presence, giving a power to anger, a spiciness to talk.
My father was a Baptist deacon, frugal with bad words of any kind. If he added a damn to a sentence you knew to pay complete attention because a belt might follow. I remember his once saying to my mother, in complete frustration, “Shit, June, I’m doing the best I can.”
Sometimes I cuss like a sailor, and my boys imitate me, and Gail gets mad at us all. Giles is the middle boy, quiet and small. Outside the window I hear him yell at his brother Adam, “Fuck you, you asshole,” because it’s the only powerful thing he can do. We sit down and talk about it, and he makes a promise I know he won’t keep.
What’s really obscene? A friend of mine makes her boys drink hot sauce after saying “dirty” words but lets them watch movies filled with violence and misogyny.
Silk Hope, North Carolina
My father saved his shouting for his family. In his office, raising one’s voice was a sin, not just because a client might hear, but because public emotion bespoke unprofessionalism.
He had never really wanted to be an accountant and always felt his work was unappreciated by the world. Having been a Depression-era kid, he viewed life in terms of survival yet insisted on adhering to his own sense of honor: don’t screw your partners, don’t lie in the name of greed, and don’t commit public stupidity. When the world, and his children, didn’t behave as he wished, our family heard his shouting, though he never swore at us or anyone else. We endured an emotional cold war, paying our own price for his long hours, hard work, and detachment.
One evening my father left the dinner table for a phone call from Louis, his business partner and friend. Louis had recently decided that their original stock ownership must be changed. In the weeks that followed he had broken every one of my father’s rules of business: first with betrayal, then with misrepresentation, greed, and personal attack. It had taken all my father’s colossal self-control to continue to try to reason with him. Nevertheless, negotiation now appeared worthless; lawsuits loomed.
That night, the rest of us sat at the table, watching him grimly speak to Louis, explaining again the importance of contracts and history and law. Suddenly he exploded. “Go fuck yourself!” he yelled, with such force that the house rang. He glared at the phone before slamming it down.
We stared at him. Gone was the self-consciousness that ruled his life, gone the straitjacket of social convention, gone also the oppression I felt in his presence. His anger, safely directed at someone else, seemed less terrifying, and for a moment I saw his vulnerability. With that “Go fuck yourself,” he’d surrendered his commitment to be always in control, which had kept him distant from me for fifteen years. I remember that night with love.