NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Rinse Your Mouth Out!

An old, old friend and I were having lunch last week, grumbling mildly (as old, old types are wont to do) about how much better behaved and more polite children surely were back in our day. Suddenly, it struck us: Where were we when we heard our first “bad words”?

This wasn’t quite as random as it may seem. We’d been talking about politics, after all. As you can imagine, we’d exercised our adult vocabularies rather well. But that did raise an interesting question. Neither of us — one female, one male, both (we thought) wise in the ways of the world — could remember uttering a downright nasty four-letter word … until we went to college.

Or even hearing it. My companion never heard his father mutter so much as “damn.” For my part, I might have heard that once or twice … like the time Dad broke his leg while driving the tractor standing up. But it certainly wasn’t a daily, or even weekly, occurrence. In moments of superhuman stress, the worst that stung my childish ears was his all-purpose, last-ditch, fire-and-brimstone oath: “Judas Priest” — or rather “Joooooo-dassss PRIEST!” Run for the hills.

My girlish ears weren’t entirely innocent, of course. I could certainly recognize that four-letter word for manure; after all, it was cattle country. But as a demure young woman doomed to spend most of her waking hours within earshot of my mother, I can honestly say I never said it aloud.

Yet even that wasn’t enough to prevent my most notorious schoolgirl scandal. Along with several other eighth-grade rebels, I’d ditched the hot-lunch line to sneak away for a clandestine Fudgesicle lunch. We passed up a chance at gluey tuna fish hotdish to requisition more palatable rations at a nearby general store … the one my family rarely patronized, to cut down on the chance of being spotted.

But we found the freezer was Fudgesicle-less. Disappointed, I clearly remember hissing out the darkest expression my squeaky clean tiny-town teenhood could conceive: “Oh, shoot!”

Naturally the sharp-eared busybody at the cash register misheard me. By the time my cohorts and I got back to school, she’d phoned my mother — who taught seventh grade — to inform her that her daughter had been downtown spewing filth.

Mom was mortified, and I heard plenty. Afterward, though, my endlessly well-behaved self was just a little thrilled at that act of defiance. That was the dirtiest I’d ever talked! And I hadn’t even said it.

Now my local lunch buddy, a libertine of far broader experience, easily topped my Streeter, N.D., tale with the first time he heard the F-word. It was at Woodstock — and yes, by that time he was old enough to drive there himself. As a rainstorm punctuated the first day of the festival, dampening music-lovers’ hippie duds though not their spirits, a gaggle of kids began to crawl up the scaffolding that supported spotlights near the stage. A stagehand told them to get down … told them again, but louder … and finally roared, “Get the [F-word] off that tower!”

“The whole crowd gasped in horror,” he recalled. “I can still hear a hundred thousand people sucking in their breath.”

At least he was sophisticated enough to pretty much understand it. At about the same time, I was going wild over the music of the famed troubadours of the New York underground scene who called themselves the Fugs. I knew right away there was something remarkable about their name from the snickers of the guys at Musicland. But at that stage — though I did think I was pretty hip — I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Ah, our parents raised us right! Given the language that’s casually dropped by everyone from nice ladies to elementary students today, our childhoods seem so much gentler, so much less coarse than these 21st century lives. Bits of that civilized North Country upbringing still pop up when I least expect them. Take my pink-hat-knitting binge last month: Whenever I heard them called “pussy hats,” I resolutely pictured a snoozing kitty.

Times change. Four-letter words — then eight-, then 12- — have embedded themselves into offhand dialogue so thoroughly that epithet-free speech seems far more remarkable. By the time my generation became parents ourselves, the conversational tides were definitely surging in the opposite direction. My folks could never have imagined all the interesting nouns that Russ and I would learn when our sweet daughter entered junior high. My grandmothers? They’d be dead.

No, the generation who raised us didn’t have to spend much time cleaning up that kind of juvenile language. Just mention that bar of soap, and we’d straighten up quickly. Instead of dreading words unfit for tender ears, mothers and fathers of the glorious, repressed 1950s concentrated on polishing their children’s etiquette in matters far more civil. No. 1 on their politesse hit parade: Showing respect for your elders.

Respect started with how we were taught to address them. Unlike Millennials and the even fresher horde coming up behind them, we never, but never, called adults by their first names. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of “Mrs. Hanson.” Even now, that sounds like my mother-in-law. “Nancy” suits me just fine. But to the people who raised me and my peers, such sassy familiarity would be a scandal.

Grown-ups invariably rated a mandatory “Mrs. This” or “Mr. That.” I doubt I ever knew the forenames of my elementary teachers … nor some of the neighbors, though I waved at them every day … nor, for sure, the christened names of Grandma’s besties. Thinking back, I’m not even sure my grandmother knew them. First-naming was reserved for family and visiting cousins.

As my pal and I finished our lunch, we admitted something slightly awkward to each other. Even now, we both feel the tug of what Mother taught us when we hesitate over how to address people older than ourselves. Thankfully, the dilemma comes up less and less as we work our way through the calendar.

Neither of us, though, worries much about what to call younger whippersnappers. It’s not only that maturity has relaxed our standards. Dagnabbit! We just forget both your names.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Rinse Your Mouth Out!”

  • Diane Binstock February 1, 2017 at 10:50 pm

    I SO enjoyed reading this, Nancy! It certainly brings back memories! Great “stuff.”


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