Rachel on Cussing

by Rachel Creager Ireland

I used to cuss like a sailor.

It all began with that backpacking trip with the Girl Scouts. The counselors gave us some maps and compasses and provisions and left us to wander around in the wilderness of the Bighorn Mountains. (In fact, they were following us, but at such a distance that we barely noticed they were there, except when they came by to lecture us on not camping in precisely the location we had named in the trip plan we’d submitted to the local authorities . . . but otherwise they were definitely well out of earshot.)

It took only a few hours for the cussing to begin. We were a bunch of girls who couldn’t afford the extra weight of make-up and clothes, we had no boys or adults in sight, we mostly didn’t have enough experience with sex to talk about it, what else was there to do? We cussed. Vigorously, frequently, and with elan.

Moving into early adulthood, I continued to take great pleasure in ejaculating the most profane language I could think of, just as I would sit with my electric guitar and methodically search for the ugliest -sounding chords I could play. (Surprisingly challenging.) In the hippie ghettoes of urban late-twentieth century USA, it was easy to live a life insulated from the conservative, the formal, the old, and children.

But all things end. Eventually I ended up in the Bible Belt with a two-year old. As she was learning to talk, it dawned on me that I had to clean up my language. Her childhood would go much more smoothly if she delayed learning those socially-unacceptable words for as long as possible. I didn’t want to do it, but I had to. Shit became poop. Goddamit became doggone it. Motherfuckin became mu . . . doggone it. It was so much more difficult than I’d ever imagined it would be, but I did it, for my daughters. And, the more I saw myself struggling with it, the more I came to believe that the easiest way to keep doors open to my girls was not to bring profanity into their vocabulary in the first place.

If I can’t do it, no else can. Now I frown at foul-mouthed teenagers at the public swimming pool, remembering how my mom used to say that foul language is for people who are too uneducated to express themselves with more clarity. I shush profane guests in the parking lot at the lodging we own and operate. I try to hide my cringe when we see childless friends from the old days who cuss constantly, with abandon, without even knowing they do it.

Recently my man Kevin downloaded some Girl Talk, a group from one of those subgenres of hip hop I’d never heard of, which uses so much sampling of other songs that their music is hard to find, because they can’t release it legally. The first thing I noticed was the beat, which the kids loved. We were dancing around the house when I noticed the profanity was non-stop. The vocals were prominent in the mix. We played it once, then not again until the kids had an overnight with Kevin’s parents, which naturally meant it was time to break out the scary, violent movies and the forbidden music.

And what did I notice? I heard lots of samples of songs from at least 3, maybe 4, decades, lots being songs I’d known in high school and college. Were these songs the group remembered from their own youths, or did these people simply have such vast cultural literacy? I thought about the use of samples, how the business of music had changed since it began, how music itself had evolved. I was fascinated by how they wove the old into the new, how even with samples of entire choruses of well-known songs, the beat of the music still managed to be what it was really about, making a postmodern comment on popular culture, even while what it was saying was unrepeatable in polite society. It was musical collage, and I thought of how it pushed the question of whether collage is an art form in its own right. I wondered if in Robert Rauschenberg’s early career he faced similar resistance. After a while it occurred to me that what inspired all this thought, the very reason I had put on this music at this moment, and was listening so carefully to it, was all that cussing.