I remember the first time I cursed.
I was in sixth grade, on my way to a French test. Or maybe it was math, I’m not sure. Either way, I was walking down the hall to class with my friends, who were all abuzz with pre-test nerves, and in the din of the bustling hallway, I let out a soft but excited “Oh, shit.”
Then I giggled.
There was really no reason for me to use the S-word then, but the sense of satisfaction I got as it tumbled out of my mouth was unforgettable. I was beaming well into the test, proud of myself for being so rebellious, so expressive.
Years later, my mother would have a very serious conversation with me about words. “Choose them wisely. A person who uses foul language is someone who lacks substance. Anyone can be vulgar, but it’s just a reflection of your ineptitude. You don’t curse, do you?” I looked past her, “Nooooooo”.
By the time I moved back to Sudan, I had become quite the little potty mouth. I was dependent on the release that cursing provided, enamored with the clever humor a well-placed cuss word could add to a sentence. And every time I went on an angry, S and F filled tirade, my mother’s words would echo in my ears. In those moments, I felt like the tattered plastic bags soaring in the Khartoum sky – dirty and filled with hot air. A flag of failure.
In Sudan, I was faced with a different dilemma. It wasn’t just about ‘lacking substance’ anymore; now it was dabbling in ‘men’s behavior’. Though my mother had never attached a gender to her condemnation, the idea that cursing is “unbecoming of a lady” is present across many cultures, and Sudan was no exception. “Talking like that – are you a man?!” I hoped that this belief would be limited to the khalaat [aunties], but as I interacted more and more with other young women, I found them expressing the same feelings. “She was sitting there, in the middle of the cafe, cursing like she was some guy. I couldn’t believe it.” Navigating cursing etiquette (if there is such a thing) was made more complicated by the fact that English cuss words were not considered such, particularly the S-word. “Shit ya man” was a phrase I heard people of all ages use, around people of all ages, with no qualms.
The adjustment to living in Khartoum was difficult, to say the least. Besides the culture shock, my personal life was in shambles, and I didn’t know anyone with whom I could relate or vent. I felt trapped in my own life and, with the new language restrictions, suffocated. I couldn’t be myself with others, so I settled for being with myself. Similar to a Tourettes patient, I’d randomly and abruptly spit out vile sentences – but in whispers, lest anyone hear me. Once, after a particularly trying week, I closed the door to my room, stuck my head in my closet and hurled obscenities into my clothes for five minutes.
The power we give curse words is, in theory, silly. The F-word is bad because we decided it was. We attached a meaning to it and made it negative. The word cat, or bubble, or marmalade could be just as shocking if we gave it the ammunition. I understand that, and yet firing a few f-bombs leaves me with a deep sense of danger – and relief. I can’t deny it: the psychological effect that cussing has on me is enormous. It’s an antidote; the shape my mouth takes to form the words, combined with the force and speed with which I speak them, is as if I am physically expelling the stress and anger I feel. But in reality, it’s all just talk.
Granted, the meaning these words convey have a very real (and sometimes devastating) impact on the listener/receiver – and that’s just in terms of English. Arabic cursing is a whole different, violent beast, with which I am (thankfully) not very well acquainted. The specificity and creativity of Arabic cuss words makes them some of the most appalling terms I have encountered in any language. Mothers are often brought into the mess. Using them is not for the faint of heart or tongue. They are words that are very, very difficult to take back, and frankly, I’m not ready to live that dangerously.
For now, my relationship status with cursing is ‘it’s complicated’. I fully realize that the use of ‘ugly words’ is unnecessary, and yet can’t rid myself of the habit.
In the words of Maurice Moss, oh bloppers.