• Posted:

    29 November, 2013

  • In:A palavra mágica e outros contos

I’ll never forget my first expletive. It’s such a fond memory that I’ve even thought of framing it. But how frame a four-letter word? Especially when it begins with S, making it the dirtiest word of my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago, but long enough)?

To pronounce that word was no easy task. It took planning, strategy, and managerial skill – qualities I didn’t even know I had until then. I’m proud to say that at eight years of age I planned – and executed! – my first swearword with the maturity of an adult carrying out a difficult enterprise. Napoleon didn’t weigh the pros and cons of invading Moscow any more than I debated before uttering my first expletive. I prepared myself just as carefully as Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral did, before they flew across the Atlantic. Not even Vasco da Gama, as he set sail for India, was more aware of the enormity of his undertaking than I was of mine, on the day I said my first dirty word. Where I lived was a fringe version of Alfama, without the renown of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood but with the rest of its characteristics: narrow streets with the air of a village, a self-contained world where cars rarely came through and where fishwives walked barefoot. In the square in front of the convent we played ball; on the curbs of the streets we pretended to bike – with rolling bottle caps – all around Portugal; we zoomed down the hill in our go-carts (the forerunners of karting), and the cheese vendors got furious when we made off with their wooden boards to build, like earnest shipwrights, our hotrods.

The local population was mixed – mostly workingclass, but with other groups that rubbed shoulders there: displaced bourgeois kids (like me) and boys from dirt-poor Mouraria who hiked up the hill every day. When spring arrived, war broke out between the different streets, with sticks, stones, slingshots and toy swords serving as our weapons. During the rest of the year a precarious peace reigned, with our soccer matches sometimes degenerating into free-for-alls of yelling and kicking each other in the shins. A happy childhood, all things considered. (Eat your heart out.)

Expletives, from the simple “Damn” to the more sophisticated

“Go screw your grandmother” were a fundamental rhetorical device. Anyone who didn’t resort to them, at least occasionally, was dubbed a “faggot”. And although we didn’t know exactly what a faggot was, nobody wanted to be one, not even those of us who later discovered that it wasn’t after all such a bad thing to be. Now guess who, for years, couldn’t bring himself to say even the slightest, mildest expletive? Right you are. One day I decided it was time to put an end to my disgrace and become normal, like everyone else. And there was only one way to become a normal, accepted, full-fledged member of the tribe. I’d identified the problem, but its solution required action as well as know-how. I had the theoretical know-how. I was familiar with the basic lexicon of expletives and knew their function, if not their precise meaning. Through patient observation of others, I had acquired a thorough understanding of how and in what context the various swearwords should be used. I knew the right tone and intensity of voice for each. Certain swearwords expressed extreme irritation, while others merely indicated mild annoyance. Some swearwords, depending on the intonation, could even express admiration. “F—-!” usually indicated extreme irritation, but “f—-ing” could express wonderment, as in, “That boy’s a f—-ing good writer!”


Time for a break. I’m not much for jokes, but now and then I come across one that, besides being funny, offers a philosophical insight, a lesson for life. Maybe you’ve already heard this one. If not, then I think it will be worth your while.

Two men were working in the house of an old lady, who was forever complaining to their boss about the coarse language they used. So he finally told them to watch their tongues.

“At least when the poor old lady’s around. Have a heart.”

“Don’t worry, boss,” they assured him.

But two hours later the woman phoned to complain about them. One of them, in particular, had uttered one of the crudest, foulest, ugliest and dirtiest expletives imaginable. At the end of the day, the boss chided them: “You promised no more dirty words, and the poor lady calls to say you used that word – a real doozy.”

“But it’s not true, I swear it,” said one of the workers. “All that happened was that Chico was on the ladder soldering a wire, and at a certain point a drop of boiling solder fell on my hand. So I looked up at him and said, in a soft voice, ‘My dear Chico, do you realize that you carelessly let a drop of boiling hot solder fall on my hand? I don’t want to bother you, but this has caused me a pain that’s rather excruciating and consequently just a tad unpleasant.'”


This joke demonstrates how useful words are – even swearwords, especially swearwords – for solving problems. In the beginning was the word, says the Bible. And there’s no culture or religion that doesn’t speak of the healing word, the soothing word, the word that’s like aspirin. I knew all about this on my street next to Alfama before I turned eight years old, even if it was only then, at eight years of age, that I had the courage to respond to the world with the balsams the world demands.

I carefully chose the occasion, a soccer match in the square in front of the convent, and waited for just the right moment. I didn’t have to wait long. It came when the roughest and toughest of my street companions – poor guy, today he’s HIV positive – delivered me a swift kick in the shins, just as I was about to send the ball between the two stones that marked the goal. His foot rammed hard into my lower leg, the pain signaled to me that the time had come, and I got ready – determined as I was, after months of intense moral and psychological preparation – to say my first dirty word.

And I said it, though it arrived, unfortunately, a few tenths of a second too late. In matters of bad behavior, as in everything else, good timing is of the essence. I started falling to the ground, as if in slow motion, while furiously mumbling to myself: “Now, you dummy! Say it now!” But it wouldn’t come out. Incurably timid, I kept berating myself: “Go on! Say it! Now!”

Until at last I stammered: “Sh-sh-sh-shit!”

It’s true that everyone laughed and clapped. “What do you know, Zinky said a dirty word!” It’s also true that I was a bit ridiculous. And it’s true that I couldn’t brag to my mother when she called me for supper. But I’m still, almost forty years later, proud of my accomplishment. And now I can brag about it.


Translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith, 2005

Share This :
Share Button