ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


On the S_ Word & Other Linguistic Assaults


For some odd reason, I wake up invariably disturbed because I can’t, for the life of me, recall whether the French translation for the S_ word is preceded by a masculine or feminine article. I’m too lazy to find my Larousse, so I’ll Google it when I finish this. My first instinct is to assume it’s masculine because its usage is inextricably tied to times when I make a list of things for my husband to do and he hasn’t finished said list before I’m done writing it down with my broken wrist. It’s also reserved for the issue of dropping things I can’t pick up: dental floss, puppy extractions on the hallway rug, and especially pens.

Merde is either tied to what men do wrong or refrain from doing at all. Examples: dust and cobwebs. This is a good start. Men don’t see cobwebs or dust and both existential items rattle us women. A nine foot cobweb thicker than rappelling ropes, on the ceiling above the wide-screen TV, is a moot issue to individuals of the male persuasion, while those who used to wear skirts are truly bugged by their unsightly presence.  If they can’t see that spider sprawl inside the house and twenty more taking up the acreage of a large garage, how come they notice a tiny speck of missing paint on a ten year old Chevy parked outside in the rain, or find a golf ball that landed in a Redwood forest next to the course. They fail to see a half-inch thick layer of dust on a black alarm clock beside the bed but the potato chip bag is an easy catch; after all, it’s in their hands.

I have decided, since my husband is too sweet and polished to use foul words in my presence (until I mention I need some help buffing the brass), then I shouldn’t  stoop so low as to use a common synonym for defecation in relation to dropping my glasses on the floor. After all, the S_ word disgusts me: it’s coinage of the fact that something, which once looked gorgeous in a serving dish of perfectly sliced avocados, marinated shrimp and living lettuce, drizzled with dressing and a few sprigs of fresh cilantro placed at the correct angle, actually evolves into another item involving undoubtedly gross accouterments with a hideous smell floating in a toilet bowl. The S_ word need not be attached to every other aspect of daily routines, executed well or not.

I used to tell my students repeatedly: “In lieu of passing along vacuous obscenities, find the right words to match the subject of your anger on occasions when you’re ticked or hurt; pick words that really stick to walls, give the target a surreptitious case of bad breath or astute confusion because they can’t decipher how to swallow what hit them in the face.” So I received a poignant essay about a brother who acted like an A_ hole, but at least the writer prefaced the noun with the adjective  “bodacious,” which happened to be the word of the day on a vocabulary site online (not as threadbare as “awesome” but getting there).  The author’s descriptive details earned him an ‘A’ in the course, because he told a vivid story of a twelve-year-old boy taking his little sister by the ankles, turning her upside down and using her to tamp down a pile of autumn leaves in the trash can. He aptly described the shapes of the aspen and oak and maple trees, the wet debris pasted on his sister’s face, tossed in lively metaphors, personified the trees themselves, calling them old men with fingers lost in a war with the wind. The plot was simple and concise. He didn’t want the raking assignment to begin with. For God’s sake, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon and he had a new bike sitting against the side of the house. Worry not, there were no cobwebs hanging on IT.

As the story went, cantankerous son met Mother’s wrath, was chased down by a brand new bar of Ivory soap, sent to his room without lunch, then texted his friends to tell them his mom was a raging Bit_, an evil witch who needed to be taken down. At least it rhymed, some consolation in a world of tiny clips of syllables floating from tower to tower and back to the table, interrupting suppertime. Kids, now grown-ups too, answer the noise coming from these rectangles as if they’re on a speakerphone with God himself…even when the dialogue reads: Ugh! Followed by another beep and the hollow phrase: Life sucks eggs. No one “sucks” eggs; they scramble them or chop them, add mayonnaise, dill weed, celery and horseradish to make a salad spread that men won’t touch because they notice something “green” inside the mix. They may miss dust, but put a scrap of lettuce on a freeway ramp, and they’ll drive in the breakdown lane to avoid the awful fact of tires meeting crisp romaine.

Back to words that make a sound, but don’t drive home a salient point. When I was a kid, we weren’t allowed to say the phrase, “Shut Up!” (despite the presence of 7 kids, 5 of them boys with boisterous mouths, 4 out of 5 growing up under the sweet delusive shade of having an answer for everything and the ubiquitous need to express it all between bites of Jell-O and over-cooked ham). “Please be quiet” never got the job done, so our dad, sitting there with cotton balls stuffed in his ears, trying hard to polish off six ears of buttered corn in peace, grabbed the presence of his throne, took two nicely buttered hands, and did a “chop, chop, chop” (elbow to wrist in the shape of a sword), which ended the blather, at least for a minute or two, though one of us had to skip dessert to get the oil off the tile floor. I didn’t mind one single bit. If Dad could get some silence in the reeling room, I’d be his maid without complaint.

When I was sixteen, home on break from boarding school, I tried a different angle in an effort to corner the chaos of family meals.  While my older brother Doug was cleaning up the milk he spilled on a regular basis like brushing his teeth, he started carrying on about a wicked game of basketball. I felt my irritation rise. “I lost,” he said, “because the ball was a little flat and someone bumped my thigh, then stepped on my toe in the middle of a winning shot.” He then recorded the history of every bounce for a highly uncaptivated audience.  I “lost” it too and grew a tongue. Believe me, there was plenty of time between the whines and moans to grow one large enough to flap.

At Oregon Episcopal Schools, a requisite of English class was keeping a vocabulary log. The bigger the word was, the more I loved it, but it had to melt in my mouth like a Hershey bar. My list grew into a book. In the middle of his rant about a rubber ball and the general unfairness that swept the earth, I said, in a high-pitched voice, volume up: “Douglas John McCaslin the 1st, you’re an ostentatious, narcissistic omnipresent little mouse with its tail caught in a crack, squealing about ineptitude without discerning that it belongs to you; we would all be living in glorious beatitude if only you would close your mouth and let someone else’s Armageddon spill on our plates.” My father had that look as if I’d putted in a forest of Sequoia trees and found the hole. He laughed so hard he started a hiccup rage around the room, still smiling when he put his corn cobs in the trash. That night, he’d eaten a dozen of them in blissful peace.

My brother Doug spent the rest of the evening with a dictionary, in a vain attempt to fathom what flew over his head like Air Force One and find a few trump cards for the next meal. I marched in the den, looked over his shoulder, gently patted his head (with OCD concerning hair, this made him fume), then quietly suggested he try using Roget’s Thesaurus, my treat. I told him, “You can borrow mine if you put away the God-damned Cheetos bag and wash your hands with a Brillo pad.” I was smug.

Back to the word merde.  I’m not sure if it’s rumor or truth, but I just read this on the internet: Rimbaud once scrawled ‘Merde à Dieu!’ (shit on God) as graffiti in Paris. Shame on him.  No wonder I hate his edgy art and adore his portraits of gardens in bloom. I shouldn’t take the judgment seat; maybe one of his greatest works of art flew off the easel and fell in the Seine. We all have bad days. As it turns out, the word merde is, in fact, feminine. Being humbled sucks eggs.


Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of three full-length collections of poetry. Her work has won numerous literary awards and she has published more than 4,000 poems and non-fiction essays in print and on the internet. Janet’s recent poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Antiphon, Offcourse, Zombie Logic, Boston Literary Magazine Vine Leaves, Poetrysuperhighway, and River Babble; more of her poems are scheduled for publication in forthcoming issues of The Milo Review, Mistfit Magazine, Extract(s), The Ann Arbor Review, PoetryBay, Doorknobs & Body Paint, The Birmingham Arts Journal and other journals worldwide. This summer, Janet was a featured author in and Burninword.

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