On Shit: Profanity as Weltanschauung


Mark Edmundson in The L.A. Review of Books:

MY FAVORITE VULGAR WORD by far is “shit.” I was about six years old when I learned the word, and ever since I’ve felt the greatest fondness for it. It seems to me one of the truly irreplaceable words in the language.

I learned the word from my childhood friend, Tony Tanzio. “Shit” was not the first bad word that Tony taught me. The first was “asshole.” It was Tony’s appellation for the ants that thronged around and into an ant hole that Tony and I found at the base of an aged, rather patriarchal oak tree. I knew that the primary name for these creatures was ants, but when Tony referred to them as “little assholes,” I decided that there was a secondary term. Many items in the world seemed to go around under two names, why not ants?

The day after Tony increased my vocabulary with the “little asshole” appellation, I introduced it to my mother. “Hey,” I said, “did you know that ants are also called ‘little assholes’?” My mother was quite close to falling over flat on her face, like a flipped pancake. “Go tell your father,” she said. My father was shaving in the bathroom. His face was fully lathered, his towel was wrapped around his mid-section in Roman- senator-on-his-way-to-the-bath style, and he was smoking. (When my father was awake, he was smoking.) I told him how Tanzio had expanded my vocabulary and he jumped as though rather than speaking words, I had pinched him by surprise in the rear of his senatorial towel.

I was always trying to make an impression on my parents. What kid isn’t? I memorized poems, made up songs, and even tried a physical trick or two — like trampolining on their bed before they were awake. No trick that was so briefly enacted and so easy to bring off ever had the effect that the two-word incantation “little assholes” did. Talk about magic words.

More here.