The R Word

SOMEPLACE-IN-MIDCENTURY-AMERICA, PA — Fields of grass blurred by our rental car windows, giving us the hope we were almost there, when my father issued an etiquette primer for visiting country friends.

“These people are different. They aren’t city kids,” he said. “So I want you to watch your language around them.”

Maybe my sister challenged him (did he mean big words, were they not very bright?). My father felt the need to clarify: “Don’t say the ‘F’ word,” he explained. “Don’t say the ‘S’ word.”

My father had a big vocabulary in every sense, and he liked to express himself. He had been pretty careful though not to throw those words (fuck, shit) around in front of us. All the same he knew the horse was out of the barn as far as those words went, and that, at ages seven and nine, this ‘f-word’ ‘s-word’ business was baby-talk, which he disdained. Still we could tell that well-traveled as he was, a trip to a place without sidewalks and buses made him feel more alien than a trip to a city halfway across the world would.

He may have sensed our confusion — were we making fun of our soon-to-be hosts? Or did a good reason (we hadn’t heard a persuasive one yet) exist for us to self-censor on a weekend? — because he added what proved to be an inducement: “And whatever you do,” he added, “don’t say the ‘R’ word.”

The R-Word?!

We were all excitement.

“I’ll tell it to you on the way back,” he promised, “If you’re good while you’re there.”

I think of that drive often, because of the way the weekend turned out, but most often in recent years because of the the grade-school reminiscent use of the term “the N-Word.”

Did it start with the trial of O.J. Simpson, when evidence that a police detective used the word itself helped weight the scales of justice so a man got away with murder? Was that the beginning? If so, it is , like the ’80s boardroom-bedroom night-time television dramas and ’70s cocaine-snorting, disco-going emblem-of-cool celebrities, the ’90s contribution to dated symbols of warped reality.

But it has hung on, although oddly it hasn’t spawned the use of the “K” word, the “S” word, the (other) “C” word, the “M” word, the “W” word, the “G” word, to make palatable racist expressions of other ethnicities.

Another way exists — as owners of the words “dyke,” “black” and others have demonstrated, to neutralize words that originated as expressions of dismissal or contempt. Forbidding a word, we all know, gives it power.

We know that don’t we?

So now an academic has taken a step further in the direction of 1984 and Fahenheit 451, of doublespeak and trashed literature, by fixing what he feels Mark Twain didn’t get right, apparently and changing all the “niggers” in Huckleberry Finn to “slaves.” So many things wrong with doing that, better expressed than I could hope to. Among them, though, the wrongness of not only distorting literature to distort history, but in the course, distorting the present. The word that has been removed from the depiction of life in mid-19th-century America is used now, daily in 21rst-century America.

So current events have had me thinking, again of the day when as wide sky and tall fields flashed by our rental car windows, my father tried to teach us how to act with country kids.

We got there, and the kids pulled us out of the car, eager to make new friends. They lead us to the guest cottage and taught us a poem they had learned recently:

“Jesus Christ Almighty, a mouse went up my heiny! It bit my tit, and made me shit, Jesus Christ Almighty!”

It was accompanied by gestures pointing to the mentioned body parts. We learned it by heart over the weekend.

On Sunday evening, pleased at how easy it had been after all to bridge the country-city culture gap, we got into the car.

“We were good,” we told our father, “even if they weren’t. What’s the ‘R’ word?”

“There isn’t one,” he admitted sadly.

Maybe he realized our trust was at stake, so he told us the “Johnny-Bad-Mouth” joke that had given him the idea: The teacher is calling on kids to say a word that begins with a letter of the alphabet and use it in a sentence. But she won’t call on Johnny, even though his hand is up, begging to be called on, until she gets to “R” (“because she’s scared of the kid,” my father explained). She can’t think of a bad word that begins with R so finally she calls on Johnny. “R is for rat,” he says. “A big fucking rat!”

Which goes to show, it’s all about context.

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