Soap tastes bitter. Like many Generation X kids in the South, you have your mouth washed out a few times for cussing. The floral, slippery nastiness rasps against your tongue and the insides of your cheeks; the astringency puckers your tongue like sweet vinegar, and the suds scud around your mouth, multiplying in your spit. Some instinct tells you they’re toxic. You try not to swallow, but inevitably you do, just a little, and gag. The textures in your throat go all wrong. There’s more gagging. It’s not a thing you forget. Like many dour Silent Generation parents, yours believe in Do as we say, not as we do. You can be very literal, though. And kids learn language by parroting their parents. Ex-Marine veterans with PTSD cuss in the same way the sun comes up in the east, axiomatically. What ensues is inevitable. You don’t like being a kid. Damn and shit hold a power you want. If you could scroll the clock forward, you would. Those words don’t sound good in kids’ mouths, you were told. You wanted to reply Then stop giving us reasons to say them. You didn’t, though. You don’t. In your South, backtalk is much worse than cussing. Soap would be dessert in comparison. You keep your mouth shut. You swallow the words you want to say. They taste like soap going down.
When your parents don’t socialize and then suddenly they do, your paradigms burst like ripe pomegranates. Quiet after-school afternoons of reruns give way to swim practice at six and then dinner. Sitcoms. The evening news. You’re not sure how adult conversations work. The adults you know talk at, not with: you, each other, everyone. There are outbursts of yelling or screaming, but mostly there is extended silent awkwardness. Because of the Cold War, you all know you could die any minute. With all its military targets, eastern North Carolina would be cratered in the first wave. There is therefore a backdrop of tension and swearing. So when your parents go to a party—they’ve never done that before!—and come home with a gag gift, you’re a bit lost. It’s a spray can from Spencer’s, a place you will later learn also sells naughty flotsam like lava lamps, edible panties, and motion lotion—lube that heats up when you have sex. The can’s label reads Bullshit Repellant. Someone has helpfully put a thin strip of tape over the brown word. It covers the bottom half of the letters. Try as you might, you can’t tell what it’s for, what it does, how it helps. You have no words for this.
You aren’t supposed to say shit but BS is sort of okay, an allowable workaround, or so you thought. At age six, you haven’t heard the phrase grey area yet but would have recognized the idea behind it. No fan of grey, your teacher has black-and-white views on what kind of language her students should use. Since someone helpfully put tape over the Bullshit Repellant’s offensive syllable, you figured it would be okay to bring it to class for Show and Tell. “See, it’s BS Repellant!” you exclaim, and get sent to the office. The principal is known to have a big wooden paddle with holes drilled into it. According to friends who’ve been spanked with it, the modified paddle will swing through the air faster and hit your backside harder than a normal one, forcing little half-domes of stinging buttmeat up and into the holes. The pain is a legend, an epic. The principal glares at you across her immense desk. “What does BS stand for? Do you know what the letters mean?” Of course you do. “Do you know what it means? If you do, prove it by saying the words.” You burst into tears. The paddle hangs on the wall behind her left shoulder. If she wants, she could turn around and pluck it off its hook without getting out of her chair. “Bull… shoot?” you mumble between sobs. “You know that’s not it,” she says. “Say the words.” You aren’t bawling because you’re afraid, exactly, or remorseful. But she keeps insisting that you say the word bullshit because she wants to hit you; she’s getting mad because she wants the excuse and you refuse to give it to her. You keep on sobbing and she sends you back to class. This is a personal first: you didn’t allow yourself to be beaten.
If shit is the dirtiest word for obvious reasons and hell the most dangerous because you’ve seen The Exorcist and know what could go wrong, that relegates damn to a sort of PG status: hardly nice but not the worst. One day a friend—we’ll call him Todd—asks if you want to know the filthiest cussword of them all. If you say it and your parents find out, you’ll be in trouble for the rest of your life. Of course you want to know. He leads you outside, through the back yard, and out onto the golf course behind your house. There, standing on the little bridge that separates two water traps, Todd looks around to make sure no one else is in earshot. He then says the word fuck, and spells it: F-U-C-K. You don’t believe him at first. It sounds contrived, artificial, a bit stupid. You were expecting a spell or a ceremony or at least more syllables, not this ugly little cough of a word. Is this a prank? Had he made it up? You begin to doubt your doubts. It does have four letters. And it means sexual intercourse, that mysterious grownup activity kids your age know involves beds and genitals and possibly a stork. You ask, “Are you sure it’s real?” When he nods, you take your new favorite word for a spin: “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fucking fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.” The look of panic on Todd’s face is the sweetest reward you could have imagined.
Joining a swim team in your early teens guarantees awkwardness. You’re a thin Lycra strip short of naked at a time in your life when you least want to be. Things are growing: legs, parts, bits. The changes are visible, clearly outlined, hard to miss. Boundaries fray. Locker-room talk coalesces. The boys, whose voices are deeper now, mainly rhapsodize about the girls’ sudden breasts. How they’d love to put their faces between them and make motorboat noises. There are tall tales about climbing up on top of the lockers, lifting one of the drop-ceiling tiles out of its frame, and crawling through the gym’s ribcage in order to peep down into the girls’ locker room. All those titties and butts, maybe glimpses of pussy. Of course none of it’s real, but the boys talk about it. Perform talking about it. They brag. You stay quiet but try to project the same air of naughty, proto-masculine merriment. You’re friends with the girl whose boobs were the first to develop, and by far the biggest. It’s how you learned the word pontoons. One evening at practice, she takes you aside and whispers “Look at that.” You follow her gaze. The nerdy, skinny boy nobody talks to or likes much has somehow sprouted a grown man’s cock. It bulges like a sock in the front of his Speedo, so much so as to be a little mortifying. You don’t admit it, but you’ve already noticed. So has everyone else. No one talks about that, not even in the locker room. There are glances. Subtle tensions. Everything is plainly visible, but everything is covered up. We prefer to pretend it’s not there. We need to be protected from it.
You yourself are the unsayable. You’re aware of this. There’s a grawlix—that camouflage of ampersands, asterisks, and exclamation marks that hides vowels and makes bad words more acceptable—over your identity. Everybody can see it. At school you’re called a f@g and a q^**r more times a day than you can count, and you’re good at math. Everybody can see that too. So you yourself are this unspeakable thing, but the word itself is allowed when directed at you. You’re obsessed with this paradox. It teaches you things. These words exist to annihilate, to ostracize. The message: You’re worse than sh!t because you want to get f^cked up the @ss, and you’re probably going to h&ll, you disgusting q^**r. No one puts a stop to it. No one gets in trouble. Unlike the other varieties, this type of swearing is somehow permitted; encouraged, even.
You use up all the Bullshit Repellant trying to work out what the stuff smells like. The opposite of actual literal shit, perhaps: metallic and slightly industrial. Half disinfectant spray, half WD-40. You spray a puff in the air in front of a window and watch the droplets settle like little similes on every surface, then another puff, then another, until the can is empty. You could use some today. Grawlixes spread exponentially, or logarithmically. Presidents cuss now; platforms have proliferated; and yet, for all this dirty talk, there’s so much less we can say. You’ve spent your whole life in open rebellion against a mouthful of hand soap—being told what not to say, what not to be. Today’s backtalk is a tide of clapback. You won’t get your mouth washed out for using strong language, nobody will; at most, there might be a few symbols over your words, little glyphs that hark back to the days when typebars struck sheets of clean paper.
The camouflage remains for as long as it can. You already know what the lumps and the bulges are, what they look like. The shapes are quite clear. They get bigger as the years pass. Eventually you have to uncover all the letters, to read and be read. As a young adult, when you embraced your status as the unsayable, your vocabulary changed. You found delicious new layers of nuance in the chatty sordidness of gay conversation behind closed doors: the smidge of emphasis on the first syllable of cocktail, the linguistic versatility of shit, the useful directionality of fuck. Nothing is covered up. This language is a compass, and that’s just the start. Many of the older guys you meet lace their sentences with articulate filth. It’s a revelation. It’s oddly charming. Also, you understand. Every thunderswear that follows some minor mishap like running out of gin or spilling tea on your lap points to the story you share: They didn’t like being kids either. The words still have power. They taste amazing in the mouths of grown men.