Cussing in Kansas

Note: this piece continues the theme of learning the Kansas state song in the first grade, covered in an article below. In case you don’t remember, it’s Home on the Range, and the text goes like this:

Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam
And the deer and the antelope play,
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

First graders never understand the third line of our state song, but by the time you get to it you no longer care. “I’ll sing it first and then it’s your turn,” your teacher says, as if a flock of parrots has flown in and replaced her pupils. A few of us parrots put our hands over our ears. Barely 15 minutes into our academic careers, we’ve already learned a lot of interesting things : chalkboards can make a horrible screeching sound, a lot like our teacher’s singing, although not quite as bad.

“Where seldom is heeeeearrrrd a discouraging woooorrrrd,” she screeches, and the chorus, 25 tone-deaf first graders yowling at the limits of lung capacity, produces a sound that causes the fillings in your teeth to vibrate. The text is beyond us, but the last two lines were about animals, so this must be their herd. Seldom is a herd of what? A herd of buffalo?

You’d like to ask, but you’re supposed to raise your hand and now you discover you can’t. Learning the first two lines of the song has been exhausting work. There have been too many new facts, and hints that your family has been keeping things from you. Why have they never talked about Lucrezia Borgia, and all of the millions of buffalo and husbands she murdered? At home do you really speak English, or is it some foreign language? “I never want to hear the word ‘ain’t’ in this classroom,” your teacher said a minute ago. “Some of you don’t speak right. It’s not your fault, but we’re going to fix it, starting now.”

Are you one of the ones that needs fixing? Has your whole life been a lie?

You’ve made your first foray into the science of zoology, with a plan for a field study to count antelopes. And even before you’ve learned the alphabet, grammar has reared its ugly head. Buffalo or buffalos? Deer or deers? You used to know, but you’re no longer sure.

All this thinking has sapped your energy. Your brain burns up all the energy it has, then starts drawing what’s stored up in your body, even your toes, which hold only a little bit, and burns that. In just five minutes a whole day’s supply of energy has been used up, leaving your body as limp as a noodle. Only seven hours more hours until school’s out.

So we squeeze the third line through our ears and it makes a lump in our brains, like a pig swallowed by a python, in hopes it will be digested later. But that may never happen. The lump may have to be surgically removed. And some of us, tragically, may die without ever having understood the full meaning of “Home on the Range.” A brain scan of the corpse would reveal a small lump, shaped like a pig. That’s the third line of the song, which never got digested.

Usually you figure out what it means many years later, when you’re in the middle of something important and completely unrelated. You may be drinking beer while sitting in a fishing boat in your garage. Or giving a speech to the American Nephrological society. Or you’re a detective on a stakeout, wearing a walrus suit as a disguise, and that’s the moment when the moment of enlightenment strikes.

“A discouraging word,” you realize, means a curse word, or, in the first-grade venacular, a cuss word. Saying that it is seldom heard implies that Kansans don’t cuss as much as people in other states. As publicity goes, that kind of information will attract one type of person, and another will say, “No thanks, I’ll just stay in Missouri.” In the end, both states are happy.
You’d expect this claim about the amount of cussing to have some empirical data behind it, but I’ve never been able to track it down. In my experience, people in Kansas cuss plenty. Which makes you wonder how they talk in other places.

First graders in particular use a lot of cuss words, which compose most of your vocabulary, aside from a few nouns and verbs that have practical uses. You find cuss words everywhere: on the playground, or when someone injures himself, or when guys come over to watch football with your dad. Cuss words stick to you; you come home covered in them. You don’t know what they mean, but you discover that they have magical powers that make the people around you do interesting things.

Cussing takes many years to master because words have different degrees of power and affect various categories of people differently, much like pharmaceutical substances. Your mom, grandmother and minister have no tolerance at all, probably because of some immune deficiency.

The weakest cuss words are used to express pain, or in situations involving automotive vehicles: getting a parking ticket, locking yourself out of the car, or criticizing the driving of others on the road. Higher on the scale come words related to poop. Then come legal issues surrounding the marital status of your parents at the time of your birth. Close to the top are words for various parts of your anatomy, followed by the things that can be done with those parts, particularly in relation to family members or animals.

All these things are valid topics of discussion, but they’re considered uncivilized. Cultured folk have an entirely different set of words that mean exactly the same things but won’t make your mom go crazy. Why? Nobody knows. It’s magic.

First graders pick up all these words and bring them home without considering the potential consequences: embarrassment, the loss of dessert privileges, or extended periods of incarceration. But at that age you’re not even sure whether something is a cuss word; the only way to find out is to test it on your mom.

You come home from school and find her baking cookies. “Have one,” she says, and gives you a cookie. You stare up at her with big, grateful brown eyes.

“Mom?” you say.

“Yes, dear,” she smiles at you.

“What does mmm-mmm mean?” you say.

She turns pale and stares down at you, thinking, He can’t have said what I think he just said. “What did you say?” she asks, which is the wrong question, because to give an honest answer you have to say it again.

“WHAT did you say???” she says – she can’t help herself – but manages to clap a hand over your mouth, just in time. She takes back the cookie, which is unfair, and says, “I’m going to discuss this with your father.” In your family, that’s the equivalent of getting out the nuclear launch codes.

* * * * *

By the second or third grade you can usually tell if a word is a cuss word, and you’ve learned they’re about as welcome in the house as pet spiders or head lice; all three are better left in the garage. The arrival of puberty presents entirely new challenges. One is a change in the wiring of your brain, connecting it directly to your mouth, without first passing by the censorship bureau, which lies just above your tonsils. Anything in your mind, even in the subconscious part, can pop out at any moment: death threats, family secrets, and an entire reservoir of cuss words, dammed up in your brain and ready to break out at any moment.

This is also the period of your life in which for a week every summer, you’re shipped off to Scout Camp. For your parents, Scout Camp provides a brief respite from sharing their home with a person who exhibits all the symptoms of clinical insanity. For you, Scout Camp imparts the lesson that you never, under any circumstances, want to be sent to the Gulag, which is, in all essential respects, just like Scout Camp.

Scout Camp will be the subject of an article of its own in the near future. For now let me just say that you learn skills that will serve you throughout life. You learn to tie knots, in case you ever need to hang somebody. You learn how to survive in the wilderness, which is a patch of woods above the picnic area at the lake, with a pocketknife, a map, a compass, a roll of Saran wrap, and a single match. These items, used in the right order, provide a solution to any situation you’re likely to encounter. They also have many creative uses as instruments of torture.

In the Gulag, over 90 percent of the words you hear in the Gulag are profanities, so at the end of the week you’re covered with them. Combine that with the total loss of control over your mouth and you’ve got real problems when the Gulag commutes your sentence and sends you home.

You come in the door and your mom is baking cookies, and she smiles at you and says how much she missed you, and the first thing out of your mouth is a cuss word.

“One more filthy thing out of your mouth, young man, and I’m going to wash that mouth out with soap,” your mom says.
Basically it’s a dare. You don’t want to take her up on it, it’s absolutely the last thing you want to do, but your brain and mouth are not under your control. You can guess what happens next.

Your mother is a gentle soul, an angel, but her threat is absolute; it leaves no room for a retreat with dignity. She’s committed herself and there’s no going back. So she leads you into the bathroom and washes your mouth out with soap.

This is a life experience just as important as being sent to the Gulag. It gives you a chance to learn techniques for projectile vomiting, which will come in handy the first time you get drunk. If you’re not willing to zap your tongue with a Taser, soap is the only substance capable of breaking the brain-to-mouth circuitry. It activates the trauma center of your brain, which records every sensation with perfect fidelity and will replay this event when triggered by the proper stimulus. In this case, a cuss word.

For years and decades to follow, any time you start to say one, your mouth will be filled with a powerful taste of soap and cause violent projectile vomiting. You don’t even have to say the word: just thinking it will provoke the symptoms.

And it’s hard, very hard, not to think of a thing when you’re trying not to. The harder you try, the more you think of it. Even right now, sitting here writing this…

I think I’ll change the subject now.

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I am a science writer at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin, author of fiction and popular science books, an artist, and a professional musician who performs on the viola da gamba and Medieval and Renaissance stringed instruments. I edit manuscripts of all types and teach the full range of scientific communication skills. I am doing theoretical work in this subject - see for example

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