In Russian are two words for ass, but they are modifications of one another. One is pronounced “paw-pa” and the other is pronounced “zj-awpa.” That first one is like “tush,” the second one is like “ass.” My house was a pure “zj-awpa” house, but my cousin was purely a “paw-pa” family and whenever we got together, I always used the wrong word for ass.
I loved hearing Russian curses, which I collected carefully throughout the years. Beyond the variations on “ass,” the Russian word for whore (tricky for Americans to pronounce), is “blyaht.” They don’t just use this word to describe a hooker or trashy-looking teenager, they also use it like we might use “Oh shit” as in, “Oy blyaht!”
“Sooka,” Russian for “bitch,” is a gateway curse, because you can always say that you are referring to a female dog, just like in English. The Russians love to put these two together: “Sooka blyaht,” which translates literally to “bitch whore” but somehow not as mean. It sounds sweeter in Russian, like “How would you like your coffee? Sooka blyaht.”
The word, “blyaht” has a special place in my life. My mother retells the story of me as a three-year-old at the grocery store.
“Mama,” I said and pointed obviously to a woman standing near us, “That lady is a blyaht.”
My mother instantly stopped me, “No, Galochka, she is a lovely lady.”
“No, mama, I KNOW for sure, that lady is a blyaht!”
I’m not sure where I developed a love for cursing, but by the time we moved to Staten Island, “Go fuck yourself, you fucking fuck” was the pretty go-to send off around town. It was just always a part of the background noise – and because English was our second language, those curse words didn’t elicit the same reflexive reactions from my parents, even when I started cursing around them. To them, it was still worse if I said “yawp tvoy maht” than “fuck your mother” any day of the week. Cursing in a foreign language is a bit like neutering a cat; it’s still a cat, just not as potent.
One of my neighbors in Staten Island was Greek and I felt a kind of connectedness to their family. Not only did we look alike, but we both also used the Cyrillic alphabet so we could read each other’s languages and try to figure out what the words meant. We balanced out this nerdy study of linguistics by teaching each other curses. Her Greek curses were just sounds strung together and felt like nothing. To this day, whenever I meet a Greek person, I turn into a teenage boy who wants to make fart noises with his underarm. “I know a few curses in Greek,” I always want to tell them, tempting them to dare me. I usually do it even if they don’t. “Aye-the-pee-diksu-malaki-zmeni,” I blurt out, like a professional Greek, but my curse words sound sing-songy, rather than the vulgar words they represent. Then their eyes would bulge and they’d gasp. I think it means “Fuck your mother” or something like that.
I have a hilarious friend; she is the Russian version of Amy Schumer, only she did it first in 1992. My friend inherited her colorful cadence from her mother, the Ultimate Goddess of Russian curse words. She was one of the most animated Russian conversationalists I had ever witnessed; it was like watching a performance artist. She used curse words I had never heard of and I didn’t know what they meant and couldn’t wait to use them myself. Her talent was never-ending. She was a poet, attaching curse words in tenses I’d never heard. A female Nabokov–Bukowski combination.
When I first started learning French, we were barely into conjugations when we begged our French teacher to give us the translation for the word, shit. Merde! We loved the Merde! We could drop the Merde all-around junior high school without any of the repercussions dropping shit would have had.
In college, it was cooler than ever to curse because – COLLEGE. Then I started working at an advertising agency, and guess what? Agencies have carte blanche on cursing; it was almost required. Fucking clients, fucking creative, fucking traffic department. Even at client meetings, they expected it from us. We were the Modern Mad Women of Madison Avenue and we no longer drank whiskey and smoked cigarettes at client presentations, but we had no problem cursing like sailors.
Maybe it was just a bad habit or too much diet coke and coffee, but at one point in my agency days, more than 50% of my sentences had a Fuck attached to them, and sometimes for no reason at all. Like “I have to go to the fucking Duane Reade to get some fucking q-tips.” Now maybe Duane Reade wasn’t my favorite drug store, but the q-tip?
In fact, until my son was born, I had no need to change my vocabulary. It was hard, but I adapted. Until I went back to work again to another agency, and you know it wouldn’t be a cliche if I didn’t say, old fucking habits die hard.
I’ve evolved into a medium-cursing woman, a perfect match for my medium-degree of hairiness.
Sometimes I find myself inadvertently, cursing as a litmus test for personality compatibility. I tend to drop in a ‘shit’ pretty quickly into a conversation to test the waters. If I feel the need to say “excuse me” after your reaction, chances are I will neither excuse myself nor be friends with you. There was one aberration. A few weeks ago I was in an interview and I was on SUCH GOOD BEHAVIOR, but then I went and let a “shit” slip out, right when I least expected it. It was like a fart from my mouth. (So not fucking sorry.)