Jonathan Seidler is an Australian writer. This is his column for Esquire.
THERE ARE VICES I have both adored and indulged in throughout my 36 years of living. Coffee, sex, certain class A substances that were very popular around the time Ksubi was still spelled ‘Tsubi’. But I’ll be the first to admit: I love swearing more than all of them combined. Arguably, I have had a longer romance with the F-bomb and its associated obscene cousins than any other bad habit. This is good because there is no nicotine patch or caffeine withdrawals for bad language. Yet once you learn it, it is exceedingly hard to unlearn.
I’m not sure where I learned to swear like a certain British celebrity chef, or Adam Sandler, but strong evidence points to my mother, who was prolific at it when we were younger. It is for this (and other reasons) that I always thought my mother was way cooler than all my friends’ parents. My father, however, was a public speaker, so if he swore, it was usually only in private and towards my brothers and I when we were being ratbags, which was every other day. But it’s from Mum that I learned how to insert swear words seamlessly into other more innocuous words and phrases. She was a cuss word magician. Mum could whip those bad boys out at the video store, as well as in the vicinity of a parking officer or at the Uffizi museum in Florence when they refused to believe that I, a 16 year old, and my brother, a 14 year old, were not in fact 13 year old twins. So deft was her touch, that half the time the offender in question didn’t even realise they’d been cussed.
But when it came to us, swearing was not tolerated. We ran the full gamut of punishment, from losing TV privileges to having our mouths washed out with soap if we were caught dropping the F, S or C-words. But we all loved to talk and when you’re a prepubescent boy in the school yard and you want people to listen, there’s one surefire way to get everyone’s attention. I’m not sure when Mum gave up on the punishment angle. Maybe when we all got too physically large for her to effectively discipline.
I provide this context to illuminate how ingrained swearing continues to be in my own young household, especially at the dinner table, much to the dismay of my grandmother, who argues it degrades our otherwise formidable vocabularies. It poses something of an issue because as you might have heard, I am now a Dad myself. My daughter is picking up words at the rate of knots and everyone is now very worried that ‘f**k’ will soon join her sterling lineup of words that currently includes ‘blue’, ‘purple’, ‘puppy’ and ‘no.’
My wife, who loves me and has now become cognisant that every time we have a conversation it may well end up in this column, is also concerned. I am a lost cause, the reasoning goes, but there is no need to poison the youth. Swear like a sailor at the pub, but not in the house.
The confusing thing is, like my Dad before me, I spend quite a bit of time in front of microphones and on stages, and manage to never let a single ‘sh*t’ slip from my lips. If I can wrangle the mystery part of my wiring that stops me embarrassing myself on radio, why not at home?
Everyone has an opinion on this, by the way. The New York Times says that it’s society’s fault, not mine, and that the taboos around swearing are worse than the words themselves. The Times reckons it helps with both persuasion and pain relief (valid: I stub my toe on tiny plastic toys often.) This guy says it helps ameliorate situations in which we feel like we have no control. You know, like me trying to control my swearing. None of these pass muster with the wife, or my Mum, who is now a grandmother and has learned to say her F-words under her breath.
The other day, in the face of unrelenting guilt and pressure from smarter people in my life, I decided enough was enough. I vowed to fix this age-old problem of mine by going old school and relying on the only proven method of persuasion: fiscal punishment. The problem is I still swear too much to carry a glass jar around and besides, I rarely use cash. So instead there’s now a little saver in the joint account my wife and I share called ’f**k’, which I transfer a dollar to every time I cuss in front of my 18 month year-old.
Maybe if I work hard enough, I’ll earn enough to buy a really fancy bar of soap to wash out my potty mouth with.
Jonathan Seidler is an Esquire columnist and the author of It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin).
Like all proper columns, this one will be back next week. You can see every one of Jonno’s columns for Esquire here.