George Carlin once said that there are no ‘bad’ words, just combinations of letters which we assign meaning to – or something like that; linguistics is a field which I’ve always meant to check out but, being a lazy, depressive sort, have never really got around to it. Stand-up comedy on the other hand (and I hesitate to use such a base term in reference to a celestial being of the late Mr. Carlin’s stature), has always been my bag. You see, I don’t care so much about individual letters and the rules of attraction in how they come to form words but, rather, the myriad combinations of words and the wildly differing effects they can have on the receiver thereof. I suppose you can’t have words without letters, nor sentences without words, but so be it — I’m the one stringing these ones together so I’ll massage the meaning to my liking; words are never as self-serving as sentences and it’s pretty much impossible to state the obvious with a single letter. In the same vein, single words are rarely as effective as a glorious string of them all laid out in a row, all structured and sexy, but a single word is rarely as harsh a mistress as a sentence, phrase or statement. Sure, we can all probably remember the first time we got in shit (word #1 that you cannot say on TV) for uttering a curse word. I said ‘fuck’ or ‘fuckin’ this or that in a completely nonsensical way, not having any idea what the word actually meant outside its status as a ‘bad’ word. I don’t even remember where I first heard the oath, but I was bored with The Smurfs and thought I’d try it out on the focus group of my little brother just to see what might happen. Well, what happened was the little shit went running upstairs to my parents’ bedroom to promptly rat me out. Tough room or what? I have no idea what my brother told the angry, younger version of my father, but I was dragged bodily from underneath the dining room table and subjected to a good old-fashioned disciplinary tanning of ye olde hide. My father was pissed. ‘It must really be a bad word’, thought I and so began a love affair that lasts to this day — and not just with that word, but with all of them. The thing is, when you’re a kid you have no agency, no real control over any aspect of your life, so when you discover something that can arouse that dramatic a response without resorting to crime or violence, it certainly makes an impression on a young mind.
Of course, not wanting my arse beaten again, I stored that word away for future use on a more appreciative crowd. Words became my thing. I started reading voraciously. I started flipping through the dictionary for fun, through the thesaurus for laughs. I didn’t have many friends. Shocking, no? But I didn’t need them. I could live in books, could imagine entire worlds free from the bounds of teachers, parents and clergymen. Eventually I discovered that I could make people laugh with words instead of just pissing them off and, once I gained confidence that such would be the outcome rather than a beating – figurative or literal – I would let fly at all times, opportune and inopportune alike. Making my classmates laugh or, at the very least pay some sort of passing attention to me, was an adrenaline rush. I couldn’t get enough.
Much to the chagrin of my teachers.
Turns out such behaviour is considered ‘disruptive’ in the school system and eventually I had these urges hectored from me by one mean-spirited, underpaid and under-appreciated instructor or another. Can’t blame them really. You can’t have some asshole disrupting your class every five minutes with whatever outburst they’ve decided is just too brilliant not to share with everyone within a fifty foot radius. It’s just not on.
So my spirit was crushed, ground into the institutional grey flooring of one classroom or another, sent packing along with my self-esteem to the big storage closet of conformity in the sky. But! I could write instead and the joy of writing was that it could be anonymous. I could say all kinds of terrible and seemingly hilarious things about whoever I wanted, teachers and classmates alike, and not be found out. Most of the time, anyway.
When I was in grade nine, myself and two of my friends decided to rewrite ‘Mary, Mary’ by Run-DMC into a rather nasty, juvenile screed against an unwitting, slightly dimwitted but always well-meaning classmate. Oh, we were pretty funny, or so we thought, until our teacher — and the bane of my existence that year (who, come to think of it, was probably the teacher most responsible for crushing me into a misshapen shadow of my former self, the teacher who once gave me detention for uttering ‘frig’ in class, the teacher who had chronic halitosis, the teacher whose last name rhymed with Crackwhore) found the handwritten copy of our master work. Well, he was not pleased. He was pissed. But this was not the same sort of pissed-offedness as displayed by my father on that fateful Saturday morning of yore. No, no. Crackwhore was out for blood. He hated me. Hated my constant smartass comments, hated my nihilism, hated my smirking mug staring back at him all day, every day. If he could have dragged me bodily from under a piece of furniture and tanned my hide, I’m sure he would have. Fortunately, legal boundaries dictated that he would have lost his job — which he vacated anyway at the end of that year, thanks to our class (I was not his only headache among our crew, not by a long shot) — so he had to make my life a living hell through more civilized means. The jig was up when he caught me showing off the manuscript to a couple of my friends just outside his classroom at the end of noon hour one day. He grabbed the worn piece of looseleaf from my hands before I could react and scanned the page as I looked on in horror, my friends stifling their laughter, poorly. Crackwhore’s face fell and he looked up at me, eyebrows arched in disbelief. ‘Did you write this?’ No, of course not. Shit, I wasn’t going to give in that easily. Then the bell rang and we returned to class.
So began the great inquisition of winter, 1992.
I thought maybe it would be okay, maybe everything would blow over. Crackwhore would give up, throw the evidence in the trash bin and make out like everything was peachy. Didn’t happen. Turns out old Cracky was gay and, I’m not proud to say, our little ditty was outrageously and graphically homophobic in nature. I don’t mean it was violent or anything, just a shining example of grotesquely childish sodomy ‘humour’. What can I say? I was a kid. I had no idea how hurtful something like that could be and I didn’t care. Needless to say, Crackwhore wasn’t going to let up until someone was swinging from the rafters and he appeared to be fitting my neck for the noose. Luckily though, we wrote the thing out in separate pieces, with three of us sharing penmanship duties. If we all kept out mouths shut, we’d be in the clear. Unfortunately, Crackwhore was a devious sort and decided to root around in our book bags while we were on lunch break the next day, finding samples of our handwriting amongst our personal belongings with which he could compare against the evidence. He confronted us one by one until we cracked in the face of incontrovertible guilt. He loved it too. I will always remember the look on his face when I owned up. He was the happiest, smuggest Crackwhore in the history of the Crackwhore clan.
My punishment? I had to take a copy of my tour de farce home for my parents to read and sign. It was the worst thing in the world. I knew what was in that letter and I would have rather had my fingernails pulled out one by one with needle-nose pliers while being smacked in the face with a dead cat than have my mother read that filth knowing her beloved boy was the author. But what could I do? Here was my crossroads. I had danced with the lexicon devil, had spewed forth venom with no thought given to consequence and I had a choice to make. Do I give in to the Crackwhores of the world, accept the justice that was being meted out, take the letter home and face parental pissed-offedness the likes of which I had heretofore only felt in nightmares or do I push back? Do I move from the realm of textual delinquency into something more tangible, something more sinister? Do I turn my back on respectable society, on the possibility of someday marrying a woman with all her teeth?
In a word, no.
I took the letter home, handed the envelope to my mother and the rest is a blur of yelling, threats of therapy and the general crumbling of what remained of my status as a child. Some people grow up when they experience death or sex for the first time, others when the crushing blow of failure or defeat rains down unfamiliar. For me, it was the realization that writing is never anonymous and that words can have as much impact as a kick in the teeth. Of course, I still have a tendency to run my mouth and keyboard sometimes and, like most everyone, I have let my inner jackass get the better of me at various points in my life since the ‘Mary, Mary’ fiasco. I once called my cousin ‘human garbage’, purely in jest. I mean, come on, how could anyone take such a term seriously? Right? It was too outrageously mean-spirited to be taken seriously. Well, he still talks about it to this day and I still regret saying it.
That’s the thing with words — they’re easy to spew forth and easy to erase, but so very hard to forget, for better or worse. So choose them wisely, friends. Choose them wisely.
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Tags: George Carlin, words