The Power of Language and When to clean a Mouth with Soap

Growing up in Livingston Parish, everyone referred to it as cussin’ before you made it to high school age.  A few of the motherly and grandmotherly types rotated between cussin’ and dirty or filthy mouth.  I think their choice of words depended on the proximity of soap and water.  Dirty and filthy mouths necessitated a thorough washing out with soap.  If you were a lucky kid, you learned the different tastes of Ivory, Irish Spring, and Coast.  I say lucky because the store bought products were less harsh than the homemade bar soap that many women made.  Cussin’ usually, about 99.9 percent of the time, brought about some form of punishment back in those days.  That could have been a firm swat on the gluteus maximus, the ever popular switch, the stern lecture, increased amount of labor of some sort, or the very effective stare, shake of the head, and deafening silence.

Once in high school, you still had cussin’ but some started referring to it as swearing, cursing, or using 4 letter words.  The terms may have been interchanged but for the most part punishments remained the same.  Being such a culturally diverse area, most of the boys could express these 4 letter words in different languages with the most prominent being English followed by Hungarian with Italian and Cajun French also heard on a regular basis.  I doubt if we spoke using foul language any more or less than other kids did at the time, but I seem to recall that rarely did we hear or say the words in anger.  They were for that dramatic or emphatic emphasis, and we tried justifying the usage by inclusion with positive statements.

My high school principal, however, taught me a lifelong lesson about justification and excuses.  The night before while watching our perennial state power girls basketball team, I used a cuss word following an unbelievable block of a shot as one of my friends hustled the length of the court and stopped a sure 2 on the breakaway layup.  Our girls went on a run following which turned a close game into a blowout.  That night my principal gave me the effective stare and shake of his head.

The next morning, he called me into his office.  Instead of “punishment,” he acknowledged the great block and said that was one play that he would look back upon if our girls repeated as state champions.  He wanted someone to write about the atmosphere as experienced by fans in the bleachers that night.  There were stellar student-athletes on the team and huge community support.  He simply wanted to record that unique period with the enthusiasm and friendships for future classes.  To do that, however, required words to convey, illustrate, and construct.  He needed words that would remain alive for many years.

Cussin’ did not fulfill either the want or the desire.  They got notice, but that attention would not survive as it was most comparable to lighting a piece of flash paper.  It’s quick to flame but extinguished without any traces left behind.  Practically anyone could strike a match, but how many people could construct a bonfire, maintain a flame, or create a spark without matches or other readymade devices?  He asked if I wanted to be common like a box of matches, disposable, and easily replaceable, or if I wanted to be something of substance.  How quickly and easily he extinguished the match he struck, and I watched the thin trail of smoke rise from the tip and disappear;

This morning reminded me not of the taste of soap, but of the demonstration and effect of his striking a match many days ago.  Cussin’ isn’t the issue which forged the need for reflection, but 4 letter words are.  I’m listening to policy makers here in Washington discussing some of the problems faced by people in this country today.  I’m reading different media reports that purport to be conservative.  I’m reading other media reports that purport to be unbiased.  I’ve talked with both participants and audience members who told me what and who is to blame for everything.

One thing I have not read or heard, however, but seems to invoke cussin’ and flash paper like actions are questions of why aren’t we working together to solve these problems.  The responses ignite quickly and then fade before becoming that mere trail of smoke rising.

Sadly, I think I see why Party has been placed above country in allegiance and everyone who thinks differently, looks differently, or doesn’t blindly follow the explosion of light from the flash paper is being blamed or cast as the enemy.  It might not be the inability or unwillingness to “take ownership” as my Grandfather and his generation embraced.  It’s two 4 letter words which have always existed or as some may say escaped from the box.

Hate and Envy bring that shock and emotion, but hopefully the matches being struck to illuminate each will dwindle and fade away.  Will the impact diminish in time?  They invoke and provoke these emotional, unbalanced, self-serving plans, but sadly they can start a destructive fire before they die their quick deaths.  Will we be consumed by Hate and Envy?  That seems to be the Hope of some.  It’s those 4 letter words or as we learned back in Livingston Parish as kids, the cussin’, but instead of taking the users to the proverbial woodshed, washing the potty mouths with soap, or giving of oneself to teach a lesson to benefit another, those cussin’ or espousing Hate and Envy are praised and admired.  Of course we try to justify the cussin’ or Hate and Envy as long as we are the ones with the opportunities and privileges.

Does that justification make it any different?  My position is that Hope is another 4 letter word, and it was also in the same box. Why should we allow Hope to be overshadowed?