When I was seven or eight I learned my first cuss word. I grew up in a home where alcohol and smoking and “potty-mouthing” were not allowed until my mother married a second time and her new husband brought two sons into our home.

One weekend all the boys set out to watch a new John Wayne movie. I don’t remember the name of the movie but John Wayne was leading a band of young rebels or a band of young rebels were chasing him. I remember repeatedly hearing the phrase “son of a bench” throughout the movie.

The next day I asked Brian, the kinder and younger of the two brothers, but still many years older than me, what “son of a bench” meant in the John Wayne movie. Brian stopped washing the dishes for a moment, blew a soap bubble at me from the back of his hand and said laughing, “It’s son of a ‘bitch,’ not bench.”

I paused for a moment as he went back to washing. I asked him what a “bitch” was he said without pausing, “your mother is one.” I remember feeling somehow wounded by his tone but I was still confused because even though I had an idea what he meant, I didn’t have the full understanding of the word yet. Brian saw my confusion and said, “A bitch is a mean woman. Like your mother.” “Ah,” I sighed. “Good.” Brian rinsed a skillet and said over the froth of running water, “Oh, and the ‘son’ — of the bitch — is you.”

“Mmm,” I mumbled as I turned to leave the kitchen. I wasn’t used to that kind of crass talk around the house but I also wasn’t used to how hard they would punch and hit and tackle me in the house during roughhousing sessions, either. I was becoming numb to their cruelty. “Hey, Dave?” Brian called out as I was walking away. I stopped and turned to face him. “There’s no Santa Claus, either.”

Brian grinned and stared hard at me for a reaction. I gave him back a stone face. As I left the room I couldn’t stop feeling heartbroken. Losing Santa Claus was more devastating than learning what I already knew: I had a bitch of a mother. The boys were gone in a divorce a year later.


  1. There was a word I saw for the first time scrawled on a sidewalk that I knew was a filthy word. Didn’t know what it meant, but somehow I knew that ‘that word’ — all by itself with no other to keep it company — must be a hated word. Kind of like someone in society who is filthy and hated. You know, the misfits. They’re usually alone and kinda ‘stand out’ on the sidewalk.

  2. Until I was in the third grade, I went to a private Christian school (of course, they’d have to be private! ๐Ÿ™‚ ) where kids would go tell the teacher if you said gosh or golly.
    Imagine my surprise when I started public school and started hearing all these other words and seeing all these other gestures.
    My poor father bore the brunt of my questions, such as “Daddy, what does gay mean?” I seriously didn’t know. There was also “Daddy, what does it mean when someone sticks their middle finger up at you?”
    I don’t know if he remembers those instances, but I have to smile when I think about him trying to figure out how to answer them, being such a private person himself.
    About your story, too bad you didn’t learn the word asshole first for a retort! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Hi Carla!
    Ah, that’s funny! I’m sure your dad must have wondered what happened to you. You left how he answered you! ๐Ÿ™‚
    I try hard not to cuss because so many people around me use that that kind language. I think cussing quickly cheapens conversations and every time I slip I feel awful.
    Having the boys in the house was a bit of a trauma because they were always filled with bad intentions… aimed at me! ๐Ÿ˜€

  4. I don’t remember the first time I cussed, but I do remember that my parents told me the truth about Santa Claus. I never believed in Santa. I’m glad they told me the truth so that my heart wouldn’t break when I found out the truth, but sometimes I wish I could live that life thinking that there’s a Santa giving good little boys and girls what they really want for Christmas.

  5. Hi elizabeth —
    Thanks for sharing your experience! I wish you remembered your first cuss word. It would be interesting to know how that word compares to what is popular today. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. What a story. I told a kid there was no Santa but I was very young (and raised Jewish). I still kinda feel bad about it.

  7. Hey Robin!
    Thanks for the comment! I see you have this blog linked on your site so I returned the favor with a link here on the main page. Thanks!
    I’m curious why you needed to tell that kid there was no Santa. Were you two the same age?

  8. I think I was eight or nine. I don’t remember when I found out there was no Santa. I came from a large family and sooner or later we all had to find out.
    I remember when my son came to me and told him his good friend had broken the news to him. I was a little disappointed; so was he. He has a little sister and she still believed. I asked him if it hadn’t been fun believing in Santa Claus and he said yes. Then I asked if he wanted to spoil the fun for her. He said “No.” So I said, “Okay, then let her keep believing for awhile.” He thought that was a pretty good idea.

  9. Hi Paula —
    It’s fascinating how the idea of Santa Claus is negotiated and it’s almost inevitable that it will end in disappointment and heartbreak.

  10. What a sad, moving story. I am continually impressed on how your writing touches a common chord (a painful chord?, naw, how about sometimes a humorous chord) in all of us.
    Do you find that sometimes profanity when used among friends who already know each other well, implies a level of sincerity, empathy or validation? For example, in a truly heartwrenching situation, one friend might say to the other, “that is just sh#tty!” The other will say, “it really is.” Now I don’t mean that you must use profanity, just that I see this context for profanity used in a positive sense.

  11. Hi Jeff!
    Thanks for the sweet words about this post. I don’t know why I chose to write about that experience today. It was meant to be humorous but it kind of turned out sad and a little prissy and if anyone dares to say I just perfectly described myself there will be shit to pay! ๐Ÿ˜€
    As much as I hate to continue to appear prissy ๐Ÿ˜‰ I find that as I get older, friends who cuss around each other it make the comforting experience less personal and more grotesque.
    I hang around a lot of people who have foul mouths. Radio people, theatre people students and military folk are famous for their colorful vocabularies.
    Before I come off as a total priss, I do cuss at times — usually when I’m angry, not comforting a friend — and I even openly confess to dropping an “F-Bomb” or two during a semester in class to quiet a rowdy crowd and it always works in shutting up students and immediately getting their attention because they cannot believe their ears: โ—

  12. Thanks for the link.
    I was 1 year older than my friend when I told her. My mom had told me pretty young he didn’t exist so I think I didn’t really understand the concept of it all. I’m sure I told her in a not so nice way and she cried. Obviously I still remember this almost 25 years later and still feel bad.
    I’m sure her mom told her I had no idea what I was talking about.

  13. Hi Robin!
    Thanks for the detail on your ages and it is certainly interesting how these memories stick with us. In your case I think it shows how caring and conscientious you are that 25 years later you still can’t brush it off. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. I forgot which cuss word I first learned when I was younger. The first time I used a cuss word was in a poem I wrote for a friend when I was 10. It was b*stard. I didn’t really know what the word meant but I knew it was a bad word because my uncle used it frequently.
    Anyhow, my friend told me how bad the word actually was and I cancelled it out from the poem. Now I don’t use profanities, whether verbally or in writing. I agree about it making the conversation less intelligent. I’ve seen people saying that they don’t like something “because it sux” or “because it’s f-ing lame”
    Talk about constructive criticism

  15. > The boys were gone in a divorce a year
    > later.
    And good riddance.
    There was no foul language in my family’s household either, which didn’t mean there wasn’t anger, meanness, upset — just less means to express any of that or let off steam, which the made the moments those things got expressed more explosive.
    Then I spent most of the last five years in Spain, where what get called cuss words here are far more a part of normal life, just another tool for expression. Regular folks use them, people on TV use them (and I’m not referring to Jerry Springer type shows — comedy shows, now and then news and current affairs shows). More relaxed. Feels much better (to me, anyway).

  16. I think kids do stupid things thinking it funny when it’s actually cruel. I think maybe my mom should have waited until I was older to tell me Santa wasn’t real but moms make mistakes too.

  17. ShutteredEye — Thank you for taking the time to share a comment! I really appreciate it! ๐Ÿ™‚
    Ambiguous — Your story is sweet and funny and I feel for you. I am also with you on criticism. I tell people to criticize without offering a solution is no criticism at all. Showing you know how to fix the problem is the goal of good criticism but few people do more than just complain about a work instead of investing the time and energy into helping make it better.
    rws — I love your fascinating story about Spain! I have friends who claim no words are off-limits and language is a tool and all tools should be used and while I agree with that idea, choosing the right word and sharpening it against the conscious detriment of other words can rightly dull tools that are less helpful to expression of thoughts and emotions.
    Robin — I appreciate your comment and I tend to agree with you on the cruelty issue. ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. I remember when my son was about 2 or 3 years old. I watched him standing watching other kids playing and some kid came and took something that my son had in his hand. I didn’t intervene because I wanted to see how he fought back and he retaliated by trying to kick the other kid, which I admired because I was proud that he was standing his ground but with every aimed kick he screamed the F word repeatedly and I remember thinking that no matter how I had tried to shelter him, the world has its ways of getting to us all. No one is safe. I am glad to say that today my son is the most well behaved son any man could ask for and he has not a trace of a potty mouth.

  19. Hi Paul!
    What a charming and effective story! It’s interesting how you let your son fight his own fight. It’s too bad the bad words have so permeated our society to the point where young people can so easily pick them up for employment from the playground.

  20. Brought back memories of my forst encounter with the word NIGGER…It was years before I forgave my folks…
    Nice blog…
    LON, Another MFA

  21. I’ll drag this posting from obscurity and post a bit about my story re: first curse word.
    I was about 5 years old and I had a catalog (Sears?) that had a toy section. One toy in particular caught my attention. It was a pull toy that had a truck/car with a man in it that would bobble up and down on a cam as it was pulled.
    I looked at the picture and said, That man is a F*-*er. I meant to say sucker but it came out wrong. My cousin, who was about 8-9 yrs. old, laughed and my mom gave me a beating.
    I didn’t know what it meant and it was years before I found out the meaning or said it again…

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