My parents were always willing to tell me what "bad" words meant. This gave me a certain degree of clout and satisfaction, because in those days cussing and related topics were surrounded by a great deal of highly unreliable mythology. I remember once coming home and reporting to my father that someone on the bus had claimed that putting up your middle finger meant "all the swears."
"Oh, no," my father said. "It means 'fuck you.'"
I also had a steady source of material largely derived, as in A Christmas Story and the Jean Shepherd stories the movie is based based on, from listening to my father attempt to fix things. This passage, for instance, rings very familiar:
"THAT SON OF A BITCH HAS GONE OUT AGAIN! THAT GODDAMN CLANKY SON OF A BITCH!"
The hot-air registers breathed into the clammy air the whistling breath of the Antarctic. A moment of silence. The stillness of the tundra gripped the living room; the hoarfrost sparkled like jewels in the moonlight on my mother's Brillo pad in the kitchen sink.
CLANK! K-BOOM! CLANK! K-BOOM! CLANK!
CLANK! K-BOOM! K-BOOM! CLANKCLANK!
But for all that, there was one word that I learned much, much later than the others, by a margin of years. I'd asked my parents what the worst swear word was. "Oh, 'motherfucker,' I suppose," they said. Hardly.
It was not until I was twelve or thirteen, amazingly enough, that I finally encountered the last one. This will seem really especially backward to any of you who speak British English, but I think it was pretty backward, regardless.
I remember the context well: it was in a graffito on the public mailbox near my house, and it was about a girl in my carpool. Her name was not Helga, but it was something very nearly as improbable, so let's call her that.
Poor Helga. She was pleasant, as I remember, a recent transplant from Austria whose English was excellent although she persisted in calling me "Wera," friendly and eager to please, an ordinary-looking girl with a nice habit of saying "Pardon?" instead of "Excuse me?" when she hadn't heard or fully understood your last remark. She also made me feel a little twitchy, because she gave -- or so she and others said -- blow jobs to college boys for money.
(Seventh-grade cash for blow job transactions have apparently not gone out of style. A few years ago, a teacher friend told us about a recent scandal at his school. A girl had been performing for selected boys at fifty cents a pop. This little prostitution ring had eventually been found out because the boys kept coming into the office to ask for change. Eventually someone wondered why they needed so many quarters, and why they looked so damn cagey when they asked for them.
I realize that it reflects very poorly on me that my first reaction to this story was: "If only she'd realized. She clearly could have been charging a dollar.")
Adult me looks back on pre-teen me and is sorry that Helga freaked her out. I was young for my age and couldn't quite deal with the blow job information. So even though she was nice, I gave her a wide berth and didn't return her phone calls. Maybe the college boys were even a figment, I don't know. In any case, I hope she's happy somewhere now, that if she's still giving blow jobs, it's for love and not money, and that it's been quite some time since anyone has called her a cunt.