Underpants: Perfecting the art of replacement cussery

By PollyAnna
Reader Columnist

My parents are the sort of people who think that watching “Snowden” counts as a date night. “Uh… How romantic?” I said, when my mom informed me of their plans for the evening a few months ago.

The next day, I asked my dad if he had to hold my mom’s hand during the scary parts in “Snowden.” “Was it a good movie?” I questioned.

“I guess so,” he texted back, “because at one part your mom turned to me and said, “That’s bullshit!”

That’s high praise coming from our family. I don’t remember ever hearing my parents cuss out loud. We were the kids who weren’t allowed to even use the word “stupid” growing up, and accidentally calling someone an “idiot” was liable to result in the worst possible form of punishment: confiscation of our library books (yeah, I know. Life on the edge).

It didn’t help that we had some potty-mouthed New Zealander friends setting the bar low in elementary school. Our American “bad words” were largely OK to them, and I remember coming home distraught from carpool rides when someone used the word “damn” in the back of the pickup. Acting distraught … but mostly, I was just being the tattletale, until I learned that my parents had no leeway over how well other children conformed to our house rules.

It goes two ways, of course. We could occasionally shock the Walters with our own crudeness. My sister was prone to nosebleeds when she was young, and the Walters were always adamant that we were not to call her ailment a “bloody nose,” much to our amused confusion. And, of course, resulting in us constantly using the word “bloody” in front of them, as much as possible.

When you’re not allowed to cuss, you’ve gotta disguise your emotions in some other suitable vocabulary, and my Nebraskan grandfather perfected the art of replacement cussery. Elvin served in the Coast Guard along the East Coast during WWII. It sounds pretty badass, trolling around for submarines and such, but he’s always been honest about how he got there.

“Well, they sent me a letter telling me I was going to be drafted in two weeks. I always thought that was about as dumb as it gets, letting me know what they were about to do, because my immediate reaction was, ‘Well, it’s time to volunteer to serve as close to home as I can.’” El had never seen the ocean before and was a terrible swimmer, but he knew that patrolling the seaboard would be a heckuva lot safer than heading to North Africa.

El and his crewmates pulled shipwrecked sailors out of icy waters off of Newfoundland, patrolled as far south as the Bahamas, and eventually wound up in the Great Lakes region. During his time shipside, El picked up a typically salty vocab, which embarrassed my mother to no end during her childhood. After his service, El’s growing family attended a very conservative Baptist church in a Michigan town of 1,000 people, and El’s habit of cursing loudly while fixing the lawn tractor was a matter of familial shame.

As always happens, everything changed when the grandkids started showing up. El now had to fix his cussing habit, and so my childhood memories are filled with odd sayings that he adopted. “Oh my ears and whiskers!” he used to sputter at the computer when it froze up.

One day, frustrated when my grandma crushed all the plastic straws for Sunday night malts, he complained, “but that’s like … that’s like digging up fishing worms, and stepping on them!”

We used to giggle to no end at Grandpa’s odd phrases, and half the time, that was all he needed to diffuse his frustration. It’s the one unshakable truth in this season of holidays, snow and cheer: grandkids are what make the world go ‘round, and no crusty dog can’t be taught new tricks when the little ones come for a visit.

PollyAnna lives, loves and writes from Sandpoint, and she’s eagerly anticipating a visit with her heart-melting nieces in January. 

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