My fascination with swear words and insults apparently dates back a few decades. My father still loves to recount the story of my younger sister’s baptism, when I, as a three year old child, shocked the church ladies by cussing out my comfort-blanket.
“God damn blanket!” I reportedly shouted, after tripping on it. I imagine my father was more amused than mortified, probably pleased that his tutelage had resulted in such an appropriate application of curses to the situation at hand.
I also imagine that after all the guests had departed, my mother had a few choice words of her own for my father. In any event, he began to teach me to swear in German instead of English. My father, who also has a facility with words, had majored in German literature. And at that point, had never been to Germany. I remain convinced that he fell in love with German because the German language affords so many wonderful opportunities to combine words into new and startling concepts.
My dad broke me in with the simple “dumkopf,” a child’s insult really. Stupid head. I really liked the way that word felt in my mouth. Especially the “f” butted up against the “p.” That was a new feeling, so I practiced saying “dumkopf” a lot.
Then one day my dad taught me “scheisskopf.” I do not know under what circumstances he taught me this. Perhaps just to be funny, which wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for my dad. And perhaps feeling that there was little opportunity for his 3 year old child to use that word where someone would understand it.
Except he forgot that my preschool teacher was one “Mrs. Schroeder.” I do not remember how authentically German she was, only that she knew what it meant when I called my classmate a “scheisskopf.” Granted, he had asked for it by stealing the paints I wanted. And I doubt that I truly understood what I was calling him, only that scheisskopf rolled off the tongue with even more conviction than dumkopf and seemed to fit the situation.
Even so, Mrs. Schroeder was not amused. My mother made it clear that if I used that word again she would personally pull out all of my fingernails one by one. My mom’s family is Italian with reported Mafia lineage, so I did not want to take any chances there. Scheisskopf was filed away for posterity.
Now I have my own children and work hard to restrain my tongue when I am worked up. I find myself trying out made-up words (“oh, bubblecack!”) and wishing I knew enough German to make them sound meaningful. Despite my best efforts, however, my own kids know all of the English 4 letter words, and the older one has worked out how to spell them. (“Hey mom, guess what rhymes with D-U-C-K?”) I’m thinking it’s time to break out the Wörterbuch and learn some new swear words.