[prose#15] Those Four Letter Words

I remember the first time I heard the word naked. I was probably eight, hanging off the edge of my friend Meriah’s bunk bed. She was sitting on the upper bunk, and we were talking too loudly about things eight-year-old girls talk about. Pink things, usually.

Meriah’s family was from our church, her dad the mastermind behind our weekly church dinners. They were a little edgier than my family. Besides being a good cook, her dad had been in jail, rode a Harley, and teased his wife in front of their children about stopping for quickies by the side of the road (I didn’t learn what that meant until much later). My family was just the pastor’s family – yawn. I mean, Meriah’s dad had an earring!

Meriah’s brother ran through the room and make a snide remark containing the word naked, undoubtedly for the shock value like a good obnoxious ten-year-old would do to his little sister. I looked at Meriah, puzzled. “What does that mean?” I asked her. She laughed at me. And explained. My cheeks reddened slightly. I felt like I shouldn’t know that word, like it was one of the bad ones. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t my parents use it? Wouldn’t I have been taught that from a young age? To be honest, I don’t know what my family used at home to describe when my little sister hopped out of a shower, shivering before Mom toweled her off. Bare? Unclothed? Just wet?

Never fear, I often now use the word naked for a number of occasions: when looking at my short-haired dog shivering outside in the snow, forgetting my two rings on a rare occasion, when describing a particularly breezy red carpet gown at the Emmys. My folks also use the word, when applicable. It’s not a naughty word in our household. We’re not quite that conservative.

I grew up conservative about words in general, though. We couldn’t say animate beings were stupid, only inanimate objects (the distinction was forged after my mother ran her knee into a cabinet, I believe). We were not allowed to tell our siblings to shut up. And we were definitely not allowed to say any four-letter-words of the cursing variety.

I was a swearing prude all of my growing up years. I chose my friends so that I wouldn’t have to hear certain words. I frowned while walking in the hallways of my public high school. I grew adept at the mute button when watching PG-13 movies with my younger siblings. My mind was constantly judging those I walked to class with, and they knew it. Some of my closer acquaintances apologized when they let a four-letter word slide, and I was kind enough to forgive them.

Then I got to college. A Christian college, to be exact. Funny enough, people swore there too. Students and professors alike. There was a wide range of acceptable behaviors for those who called themselves Christians. Being involved in theatre and literature, I learned that there was a time and a place for these words, in creating a world and a character. I even realized their power when well-placed and unexpected. I could shock people by letting words fly out of my mouth that didn’t seem to belong there.

And so, I started experimenting with a few “damns” here and there, usually as an expression of frustration. Then, some “no way in hells” for emphasis. These were usually said about half as loud as the rest of my conversation, though. I never wanted to say them in my normal voice. I was still ashamed. I still felt like I was being bad.

Then, one fateful day at my brand new job, my department was reorganized. Meaning, the friends I had worked so hard to get to know were, in an instant, set adrift. I alone was safe. Talking over instant messenger – my office’s preferred mode of communication – a friend and I processed and cried and stormed. And I expressed my feelings: it was the shittiest day I had ever known. Typing the word made it more real. That was okay, and the word continues to be okay with me – within reason

Now, here’s the problem. The more I use those four-letter-words, unacceptable in conservative culture and encouraged in shock culture, the more I rely upon them to make my thoughts and feelings known. And the more people judge me for that.

As a lover of words, I realize their power, and I pride myself on finding the right ones. In falling back on “curse” words, I am robbing the English language of elements of its power. Sure, a well-placed damn can do amazing things. But if I can only use that word to express my frustration, then I’m not a very good communicator. And if I use those words too often, then I forget their power altogether. Example? Nearly any movie that is rated R. I saw Death at a Funeral this weekend, the Chris Rock version. I thought it was hilarious, but by the end, I was so desensitized to the F-word, that I was ready to spout it off – something I have never done. I was so used to it, that I forgot it meant anything.

But the paradox is that they still mean things to other people. They still have meaning and more power than we realize. Most would say, “They’re only words,” and some higher thinkers would say, “They only have the power we give them.” Those phrases are so true, and that’s the problem. Words have to have power. They are, at their core, symbols. Similes. They represent the physical object. In our culture, we know that a metal (sometimes plastic) stick with a bowl on the end, small enough to fit in our hands, that’s a spoon. A table has four legs, three, or a post in the middle with feet. And feet usually have five toes apiece, ending our legs so we have some stability while standing. The f and the two e’s and the t have no meaning in and of themselves, but together? They embody a whole concept. We need them to communicate, to understand each other, to take thoughts and feelings out of this silent brain and into the space outside ourselves.

We are also judged by what we say, because we are only known by two things: our actions and our words. Yes, actions are often more convincing, but we struggle to connect without those strange noises coming out of our mouths. Because I want to be a good person, because I don’t want something standing between me and the Christ I want to live within me, because I want to be ignored so that the Light can be exposed, I need to watch what comes out of my mouth. And that doesn’t just go for our little few-lettered friends. That means those sarcastic remarks that dart out so quickly? That negativity that spills out like tar? That harsh judgment that burns like acid? Those need to be checked too, so that I don’t offend or hurt before someone can see the light. Because even though I don’t live for other people, I live for a higher power. And unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on the day), that higher power wants me to love other people.

Because of the power of words and because I’m too proud of my vocabulary, I’m going to try and halt those four letter words before they fly out of my mouth. I’m going to hold them for a millisecond before I let them go, and test them for soundness, for necessity, for reason. Sometimes, I’ll be serious. And sometimes I’ll be flippant. Sometimes, I’ll be good and other times I’ll just not care a stitch.

I can guarantee this, though: if a young man runs through my college campus without any clothes on, I’m going to call him “naked” and not feel bad about it at all.

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