In middle school, we had a Jersey dairy cow, and I dutifully milked her in the evenings. One Friday, I had a friend over to spend the night. We went to the barn, and he watched me squirt streams of milk into the pail until it frothed. He stood at the edge of the stall, eyes shifting between his clean sneakers and the mounds of cowshit. The next morning, he hesitated to pour that milk into the cereal. He’d seen it in the pail. Come Monday, I overheard him telling our friends about what a gross experience it was to drink fresh cow’s milk. Everyone laughed as they wolfed down cafeteria pizza, strings of cheese stuck in their braces.
I became less dutiful in my milking. We sold the cow. I asked dad for $1.25 every day to buy a slice of pizza.
Vulgar. Going back to Latin, vulgar means “of the mob or common people.” One can imagine an aristocrat, peering down his powdered nose at the smelly plebeians, blowing that word out like a bubble, “Vul . . . gar.” Vulgar can also mean profane. The vulgar definition of profane is that something is morally dirty, not to be discussed in polite company.
Shit is a word that I learned fits both uses. The shit in the stall, which smelled bad and you didn’t want to track into mom’s house, but which also had a valuable function. At the end of growing seasons, dad would take the front-end loader, scrape the stalls clean, and dump piles of shit in the garden to compost over the winter. This use of the word was earthy, outdoors. Like cow is a word for the field, and beef is a word for the table.
Not that middle school Seth knew this, but cow and beef bear connotations of the vulgar. The Norman aristocratic occupiers of England demanded beef at the table (a word impressed on Anglos and Normans alike by their common Roman occupiers). The Anglo cooks, servants in their own land, heard beef and compelled the Anglo butchers to order cow from the Anglo animal husband (housebond), who had shit on his shoes. This final man, invariably tracked shit into the huswif’s kitchen and received a scolding. Again I imagine the aristocrat chortling, sibilating, elongating the syllable: “Sshhit.”
The other use of the word shit showed up for me around middle school, and was suddenly lewd and because it had a new moral quality, spoken with a glance over the shoulder for policing adults. Usually it was meaningless—punctuation and cadence—more akin to a dog barking than a person conveying ideas. But more often than I care to admit, we employed it in that adolescent posturing that also looks like dogs establishing dominance. In the right context, for the kid sitting on the edge, having the word “shit” cast on you, could be devastating. From the head of the lunch table, the boy in Brandname® jeans barks, “You are a vul…gar piece of sshhit. You don’t belong here.”
One defense against that judgment is to bark back. Another is to bark down the line at the next kid on the edge. We are all capable of justifying ourselves in awful ways.
“. . . people are accustomed to regard anything as vulgar that overreaches their own attempts at self-justification.”
Robert Penn Warren, Band of Angels
I keep circling back around to that quote in my thoughts. Amantha Starr, the character in Band of Angels who says those words is describing gaudy decorations in her antebellum Kentucky mansion. Baubles like a silver teapot and gold-framed portraits seemed grand in her youth, but after she becomes an adult, she recognizes those objects as mere pretense and posture. An attempt to justify her family’s presence in plantation society.
As a child, Amantha had been the heiress to the plantation. She moved freely about the property, seeing each of the objects, including the slaves, as her possession. Each piece inherited, full of history and lineage that defined her identity. She expected to take some of them with her when she grew up and was married.
Then her father died, and it’s determined that her mother had actually been a slave, and her history and future disappeared as she was auctioned into slavery. Eventually she is freed after the Civil War while the Starr plantation of her youth is plundered. An adult former slave, Amantha now sees those objects by which her family had justified themselves as glaringly vulgar. Yet, she still feels the need to justify herself in some way, to some group of people. To answer the question, “Who am I?”
It’s a fair miracle that we carry this inherited network of meanings in our language. Now that I’ve become the policing adult, I assign after school detentions when my students use profanity in class. There’s even a tick box in the disciplinary form to discern whether a student used a word “inappropriately” or as “verbal assault.” Same word, different imagination.
By the benevolence of the English teacher gods, I inherited a full set of the Oxford English Dictionary in my classroom. When my students arrive for after school detention, I have them look up the recorded history and usage of the word they used. Not as punishment, but as the ongoing work of education. If you’re going to use a word, it will serve you well to understand what it means. The carpenter understands the intent of a hammer better than does the monkey.
There’s slippage in meaning, of course. Groups of people develop shibboleths as identity markers and gatekeepers, in order to justify themselves as a group. A few years ago, my students began to use the word goat in inexplicable ways. Their tone gave them away, and the waves of giggles when someone said the word out loud in class. After some investigation, we parsed out that their use of goat referred to a penis. It interfered with the work of education, so we formed the ridiculous policy of banning goat from the classroom. When a boy leans over to a girl in class and brazenly asks her to “pet his goat,” I have to tick the box that says “verbal assault.”
My least favorite role in teaching is the policeman, especially when it comes to language. To the kid, I’m an aggressor, exercising an authority he barely recognizes, and only under compulsion. “Who are you,” he might ask, “to trample my first right?” And he wouldn’t be referring to the constitutional provision, but the simple human fact that our first breath drawn is exhaled in speech. His first attempt to answer “Who am I?”
It is natural that teenagers want to set themselves apart from adults; girls from boys; brother from brother. Each human being justified as a self. Yet evil thoughts proceed from the heart; some of those words of justification will in fact be an injustice, not merely a prude’s snobbish regard. An innocent word like goat becomes a weapon to purloin power.
The role of the teacher-as-police is to tell the kid who—in the same word, exploits the girl and tests out the question, “Who am I?”—that “No, in fact, this is not who you are!” Unfortunately, creating a policy that bans a word does not ban the evil thought. It will find a word in which to express itself.
Bread is profane; the sacramental host is sacred. They’re both made from the same wheat, baked in the same ovens, eaten by the same mouths, digested, and mingled in the same steaming pile of morning excrement. The difference is in how we imagine one crumb from the other as it passes our lips.
Upending 1,300 years of practice, Jesus told a bunch of strictly dieting Jews that food didn’t make them profane—ceremonially unclean—but words coming out of their mouths did. “Evil thoughts,” he said, “proceed from the heart” defiling the body as they pass the tongue. Murder is spoken before it is committed. Jesus went so far as to say calling someone a fool is murder. Fool, or vulgar piece of shit.
The sacred trick is to say words which sink down into the heart that become thoughts of peace, a future, and a hope, and proceed into the world on the tongues of the vulgar.
Cover image by NOTAVANDAL.