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Ode to a Four-Letter Word

And I don’t mean "okay."


Illustration by Dienstelle 75  

‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the poet Philip Larkin declared in “This Be the Verse.” Maybe so, but Adam Mansbach would like to point out a corollary: The kids return the favor. Mansbach is the father of an apparently insomniac toddler and the author of five books, including the fake bedtime story Go the Fuck to Sleep. That book, which began life as a jokey post on Facebook, won’t be published until next week. Nonetheless, it has topped the best-seller list on Amazon (not Amazon>Children’s Books>Satire>Profanity—all of Amazon). It is being translated into more than twelve languages. Fox 2000 has acquired the movie rights. It all but begs for sequels—having spent some time taking care of a three-year-old this winter, I’d like to nominate Put on Your Fucking Boots—and it makes an ideal gift for the infinitely self-replenishing population of new parents. In short, I suspect it will be with us for a while.

Why has the world gone gaga (so to speak) for this book? Part of its appeal is the barbed send-up of a normally saccharine genre, but Go the Fuck to Sleep is not, at base, a parody. It’s more like what Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz—a book that tells a familiar story from the perspective of a previously marginalized character. Bedtime, like a lot of modern parenting, is organized around the child (the thirsty, hungry, OCD child); Mansbach shows us the parent’s side, and despite some charming lion cubs, et al., by the illustrator Ricardo Cortés, it ain’t pretty:

The flowers doze low in the meadows

And high on the mountains so steep.

My life is a failure, I’m a shitty-ass parent.

Stop fucking with me, please, and sleep.

This is not a spoof of Goodnight, Moon. This is Battle Hymn of the Tired Father.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of commentators are using Mansbach’s book to reflect on the state of modern parenting. You’ll forgive me if I use it for a different purpose: I’d like to talk about our culture’s bipolar relationship with the word fuck.

That word—which appears, like a crude jack-in-the-box, in the last line of every stanza—is why the book works, both creatively and commercially. Yet this popularity was not a foregone conclusion. Like sex, alcohol, nudity, and drugs, swearing sets off the great American seesaw of schoolmarmish horror and schoolyardish glee, and it can be hard to predict whether a writer who curses will wind up exalted or excoriated. I know, because I wound up on the wrong side myself.

When it comes to profanity, I hail from what you might call a mixed background. My father swears freely and ­exuberantly—although, when I was a child, he did so exclusively in Polish. In moments of paternal irritation, an entire shtetl sprang to life in our suburban home. Psia krew, cholera, curwa, szmata: excrement, cholera, whores, rags. (Predictably, that gritty archipelago of my father’s native tongue is all the Polish I ever learned.) My mother, by contrast, swears approximately never. Moreover, some years ago, she confessed that she hates it when I do so. I was startled and abashed, and cleaned up my act immediately—which is to say, I stopped swearing in front of her.

As that concession suggests, all cursing is contextual. My mother’s aversion to profanity has everything to do with being born female in the forties, and her primary objection to my own occasional expletive was that it seemed “unfeminine.” (In context, speaking of context, that objection struck me as faintly comedic and overwhelmingly kind: This is a woman who didn’t miss a beat when I first brought home a girlfriend.) My father, meanwhile, reverted to Polish to swear because he knew that imported expletives lose their shock value—which is, of course, almost all the value they ever had.

In addition to this mixed family background, I also enjoy a mixed geography of profanity. Like Mansbach, I live in New York, which surely deserves the prize for most foulmouthed city in the nation. (You Chicagoans can go fuck yourselves.) Profanity flows from New Yorkers as the East River flows into the sea: constant, filthy, strangely magnificent. It’s not just our ability to cuss each other out; it’s the blasé and cheerful vulgarity of everyday speech. I was once in a packed midtown crosswalk at rush hour when a guy next to me retrieved something from the street and sprinted ahead, shouting, “Yo, lady, you dropped your fuckin’ wallet!”

This endless, extemporized profanity has had an unmistakable effect on my own speech. Before I moved to New York, I lived in Oregon; nowadays, when I go back to visit, I feel like a sailor on shore leave at a Raffi concert. On the other hand, I blush when I return to Chile, where I also once lived, and where the locals speak a famously profanity-happy version of Spanish. You know those nice respectable Midwesterners who say “sugar” when they mean “shit”? Nice respectable Chileans sit down at the breakfast table, look at the sugar bowl, and say, “Pass me that shit.”

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