How to Curse

cursingEvery teacher has a day. There is that one day during the week in which a teacher has a schedule loaded with torturous classes. If you are a friend, spouse, or flatmate of a teacher, you may have heard them refer to this day as their day. Perhaps, they call it their big day, their killer, or their Hell Day. They may just mumble a series of incoherent statements partitioned by sobs.

Wednesday’s my day.

No matter how conscientious the teacher, there comes a point when you want to curse at the top of your lungs. Often, in our fantasies – usually concocted while wiping the board – this curse is screamed while busting a chair across someone’s forehead.

But you can’t, because you’ll get in trouble. Moreover, students have an incredibly selective memory system. They will forget homework, they’ll forget a grammar rule, and they will forget with ease the twenty-seven times you mentioned a due date. Yet, they will eternally remember when you got something wrong and when you cursed.

Oh, I’ve let slip before. I’ve dropped a shit or a fuck under my breath, but as selective and keen as the students’ memory system is, their hearing is double that. They can hear a teacher curse from two hundred meters away at an outdoor carnival. During a rain storm. With Anthrax blaring.

Throughout a Wednesday, my day, I need to curse, because if I don’t, my face will explode like that bad French Archaeologist’s at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, cursing could get me in trouble. This is usually a quandary, but not this week. For I have learned how to curse.

“Can you do exercise one, please?” I stop and wait and then add, “I bet you have your mother’s ears, don’t you?”


“Do you have your mother’s ears? Your mother’s ears. Your mother’s ears.”

“I don’t…know.”

“Oh well. Let’s move on…”

The confused student looks at me sideways, but probably chalks this up to another weird thing old people do. The class continues until another student begins picking my mental scabs.

“Were you in the restaurant last night?” I ask.

“I’m sorry?”

“Were you in the restaurant last night? In the restaurant?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Just a guess.”

Class ends and I release a breath. Boy did that feel good. I probably shouldn’t have said such controversial things in public, though.

I (at once) blame and owe it all to Bill Bryson, whose books constantly interest and amuse me. Bryson devotes an entire chapter to cursing in Mother Tongue, his brilliant book about the English language. This chapter is filled with interesting tidbits (originally titbits, morphed for reasons you can figure out) about the way people curse in English and in other languages.

Many languages have curses that seem absolutely ridiculous in English. For example, in Finnish, about the worst thing you can say is ravintolassa, which means in the restaurant. Yes, when stuck in bumper to bumper traffic outside of Helsinki, one doesn’t shout shit or fuck in Finnish, but rather, in the restaurant! I have no idea if this is a rude thing to say to another person, but it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to say this several times to someone who was irking me.

In the Xoxa tribe in South Africa, hlebeshako is about the angriest thing you can say to another person. Hlebeshako means, you guessed it, your mother’s ears. Honestly, I am warmed both by the fact that I said it to someone, and that that someone has since almost certainly sized up his mother’s ears and thought, “Do I have my mother’s ears?”


To be fair, Bryson mentions, English offers confusion as well. Imagine telling someone from Portugal that one of the harshest things you can say to someone in English is to get fucked. Well, can you think of activity more pleasant than doing just that? Me neither. We might as well yell Enjoy the film! or I love your shoes!

From Bryson I learned that the most intense epithets the Wik Monkan natives can shout are big penis, plenty urine, or vagina woman mad. Oddly enough, I think I sort of understand the third one. And that the Japanese and most Native Americans do not have native swear words, which led me to wonder what Admiral Yamamoto shouted after botching the Battle of Midway.

While reading this chapter, I realized that my approach to cursing was all wrong. I could rely on old-fashioned curses, but if I felt like shouting “fuck off” at my boss there would be unpleasant consequences. And these consequences would surely have me stretching the limits of my own language’s capacity for vulgarity.

The key is thinking outside the linguistic box and tapping into other languages’ ways of showing disdain or displeasure. This has the dual satisfaction of cursing someone out and not getting into any trouble.

My Wednesday ends without another curse in any language. I get on the tram droopy-eyed and ready for food and sleep. Traffic mounts as we head down the street and I hope we don’t get caught up in it. Because if we do, I am going to go vagina woman mad.

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