Pine Nuts: The Art of Swearing |

Pine Nuts: The Art of Swearing

McAvoy Layne

I have a good friend whose wife puts a jar out whenever I visit, and makes us deposit a dollar into that jar every time we use a profane word to color our conversation. So I always stock up on dollar bills before visiting. Maybe it’s because I was in the Marine Corps, but I have found as an adult, that sprinkling your banter with an occasional cussword for emphasis is like sprinkling your mashed potatoes with pepper. Of course, if ladies are present I am most guarded, and if children are present I abstain altogether.

Yet, nobody could swear, I have to believe, like Mark Twain. As his thirty-year housekeeper Katy Leary wrote in her book, A Lifetime with Mark Twain, “Men don’t come any better in this world than Mr. Clemens.  He swore like an angel, sort of amusing it was—and gay—not like real swearing. I suppose everybody has a few private cuss words of their own to help them over the rough places.”

Apparently, there was little or no wrath or malice in Sam’s swearing. As Elizabeth Wallace averred, “Gently, slowly, with no profane inflexions of voice, but irresistibly as though they had the headwaters of the Mississippi for their source, came this stream of unholy adjectives and choice expletives.”

And Sam had his own personal respect for the art swearing…

“As for profanity, there are times when profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer, and when it comes to pure ornamental cursing, the average American is gifted above the sons of men.  Oh, I used to be able to utter an oath that would knock the dust up where it struck the ground.  When angry, count four; when very angry, go ahead and swear.  It’s the people’s poetry.

A gentleman can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way. 
I had a lady friend who was not feeling well last week, and she asked me, ‘Sam, what can I do to feel better?  I feel awful!’  So I told her what my doctor told me, I said, ‘Dear, you must give up drinking, smoking & swearing.’

She said, ‘But Sam, that would be easy, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I’ve never sworn.’

There it was. She had been neglecting her habits.  Here was this poor moral pauper, a sinking ship, with no baggage to throw over.  Oh yes, one little bad habit might have saved her.”

Sam’s swearing, it might be safe for us to say, was an artform unto itself. I only wish I could have had the distinct pleasure of hearing it fall upon my ears, like an American folksong. By listening to Mark Twain’s swearing, well, I’m confident it might improve my own liberal use of profanity and make me more comprehensible to my comrades in conversation. Sadly, that might not happen today, but it might happen…


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