My dad learned to speak English very well when we came to Canada in 1948, but he always cussed in Polish. It seldom happened, only when something went awry during a repair or when he was working on one of his hobbies: wood carving, making trinkets, fashioning costume jewellery or generally tinkering with something.
If you were fairly close when misfortune struck, you could hear him whisper, "hoh-LEH-rah," and see a puff of smoke billow out around the cigarette dangling from the right corner of his mouth. He usually said the word under his breath, as if he were embarrassed to have lost his temper. Maybe he didn't want my tender child ears to hear.
If a catastrophe occurred or several problems happened in succession, his anger defeated his restraint and his voice rose proportionally to the severity of the situation. And yet, the cigarette never fell. If the ash on the end broke off when he raised his voice and fell onto the working area, that was reason enough to escalate the cussing.
"Hoh-LEH-rah" is cholera in Polish and is spelled the same way as in English. I never quite understood how whispering, speaking or shouting this word could provide any satisfaction. I tried it. It didn't do a thing for me. If I stubbed my toe or cracked my shin on something, I tried exclaiming other dreaded diseases - "Smallpox!" "Polio!" "Typhus!" - but none of these relieved my distress.
Another of my dad's favourite cuss words was "SOO-kee sin." Its equivalent in English refers to a female dog's male offspring. He used it when a tool or an object being repaired offended him. This is different from a "hoh-LEH-rah" event, which applied to a situation. Again, I have tried saying it in Polish, but only the English version soothes my temper.
What an interesting phenomenon: Only English cuss words work for me, even though my first language was Polish. We spoke Polish at home, but my schooling past Grade 2 was in English. It probably has something to do with the language of a person's schoolmates.
My mom never cussed. Rather, I have never heard her swear. My wife told me the situation was similar in her family: Her Irish-Canadian dad cussed, though only rarely, but her English-Canadian mom didn't. It seemed to be a male thing in those days.
My wife and I wonder how the latest generation of young adults cusses. Swear words seem to be part of the vernacular now in conversations, TV shows and movies. If people use the same words for cussing as for speaking, how can that be satisfying?
After I grew up, married and had children, I swore under my breath when something went wrong and I was alone. At least, I thought it was a whisper. After I would surface from wherever I had been working, however, my wife and kids would ask me, "Is everything okay?" Somehow, they always heard my "whisper."
As I age, my tolerance for annoyance is shrinking and is related to my mood. For example, if a pencil rolls off a table onto the floor and just lies there waiting to be picked up, this is only mildly bothersome. I don't cuss if I'm in a good mood, for the pencil is merely obeying the law of gravity, and we all should be law-abiding. If I am grumpy, however, or the pencil rolls far under a couch or to some other inaccessible place, then it's clearly defying me and needs to be cussed.
While my dad used to raise his voice as he became more annoyed, I begin to string additional expletives together. There's a favourite word at whisper level for a minor situation, two words at a forceful whisper for a more irritating one and so on up to six different words at a loud speaking level for a serious issue.
After reading that even occasional fits of temper are unhealthy, I have tried for the past year to change my lifelong habit. Part of the solution is to reduce my amount of grumpy time. I noticed that an afternoon nap improved my mood for the rest of the day, so naps are now in my daily routine. Fortunately, I'm retired and can afford the time for this frivolity.
The other part is to eliminate cussing. I tried quitting cold turkey, but that didn't work; the exclamation is like a reflex reaction. For example, when I was working in the cramped crawl space under our cottage last autumn and bumped my bald head on a floor joist, several expletives exploded from my mouth. It wasn't only the pain - it was also the realization that I had forgotten to put on the hard hat my wife had bought me to avoid this very occurrence, and the expectation that I would be asked, "Hey, what happened to your head?" for at least a week until the scar healed.
And yet, I automatically restrain myself when in company. Isn't that strange?
To help quit, a stepwise plan came to mind. First, I would replace all the cuss words with "stupid," or several "stupids" depending on the circumstances. Once I succeeded at that, the plan was to gradually reduce the number of "stupids" until I eliminated verbalizing my frustration.
Unfortunately, this hasn't worked. I find myself using "stupid" as a prefix to all the other expletives, not a replacement. So now, instead of using six words for the serious issues, I'm using 12. This is actually quite gratifying - it inflicts double the punishment - but I must persist in carrying out my plan.
I swear: I don't know if I will ever succeed.
Tony Kicinski lives in Markham, Ont.
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