Notta and Four-Letter Words


About That

Notta and Four-Letter Words


“Sometimes I really hate my mom’s boyfriend,” one of my female students announced the other day. She had her books, pencils and notebook arranged around her usual breakfast of two jelly donuts and a latte of whatever seasonal flavor the coffee shop around the corner was hawking this week. Notta and I deposited our materials across the table from her. We waited; this student rarely needed prompting to complain.

“I mean, last night, he looks at me and says, ‘Oh, girl, you’re getting fat! You gotta go on a diet.’” She sank her teeth into half a donut, then licked off her new lip gloss of red jelly and powdered sugar. Notta darted into the restroom off our conference room/classroom to bring her a paper towel. “I mean,” the student continued, “I eat good stuff. I eat salads and fruits and stuff like that. And who’s he to tell me what to eat? I’ve never seen him eat anything but pizza and beer.” The rest of the diet followed the first bite. More dabbing with the paper towel. The student snorted. “A diet. I should go on a diet. If you ask me, ‘diet’ is a four-letter word.”

By this time, five more students had come to class. The two young men looked at the donuts, the student devouring them, then me with heads shaking. Two of the girls tried to support her with platitudes against body shaming. The other didn’t want to get involved. I sat down in my corner seat.

“Now, that’s an interesting expression,” I said. “’A four-letter word.’ What do you think that means?” Notta rolled her eyes. She began searching the bookshelves for our dictionaries; the night class and Notta had very different ideas of how and where books should be shelved. It was a regular mystery to solve, and she was glad of it. She knew we had a teachable vocabulary moment. She simply didn’t want to teach it.

“’Diet’ has four letters,” one young man sporting the faint shadow of a new beard said. “D-I-E-T.” We rewarded him with a little laughter, more groans and a couple “Duhs”.

“Yes, but I don’t think that’s what J- had in mind,” I said. “In some cases, you could say that, to a person on Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers, ‘overeating’ is a four-letter word. Some people in my generation used to say that ‘war’ was a four-letter word.”

“Guess they couldn’t spell,” New Beard said. We all laughed.

“But seriously, folks,” I said. “What are we talking about?”

“Mostly cuss words, I guess,” said the uninvolved student. “You know, the words your parents don’t want you to say.”

“But they say all the time,” J- said. “Especially when they’re mad at you.”

“Such as?” I had to ask.

New Beard rattled off a list of profanities that would have scorched any mother of my generation’s ears, but would make also most stand-up comedians proud. “I used to get my mouth washed out with soap if I said that - “ he put in one of the words, which indeed had four letters.

“Why?” I prompted.

He stared at me. Too often, my students regard me as benign and slightly dim. “They’re bad words.”

“Why are they bad words? Words are words, aren’t they?”

There is an expression I would like to call the “Student Face 1”: wide-eyed, mouth slightly ajar, and eyebrows half-frowning, a facial contortion that seems to ask, “Are you [expletive deleted] kidding me?” Or words to that effect; I’ve heard that question expressed with multiple profanities.

“Yeah, but when you say them,” another student said, “you’re usually mad or trying to get someone else mad.”

“So you use the words,” I said, “to - ?”

“Piss people off,” New Beard said. He beamed with the pleasure of having taught the teacher something.

I nodded with a thoughtful look as if I had in fact learned something. “So you’re saying it’s not so much the words as the thought or intention behind them.”

They all had to consider that one. The previously uninvolved young woman spoke first. “Yes, but they’re really not nice words.”


She got up to take a dictionary from Notta. “Here,” she said. “Here’s – “ one of the most frequently used profanities of late. Her classmates tittered. Notta cleared her throat to silence them. “First word in the definition is ‘vulgar.’ That means, it‘s not nice. It’s ignorant.”

“Ah,” I said. “Which means?”

She made an impatient noise in her throat. “It means, if you have to curse all the time, you don’t have much of vocabulary and you’re ignorant.”

That raised protests all around, some laced with four-, six- and more-lettered profanities. I rapped on the table with my knuckles. The last thing we needed was for the agency director to hear this colorful discussion. “Okay, okay,” I said. “Let’s agree that there is a time and a place for all words; it’s the speaker’s intentions that can be bad. Or ignorant. Or vulgar. Take your pick.”

They settled back into their seats with what Notta would call “Student Face 2”: eyes lowered lips half-pouting and a general set of the jaw to indicate we oldsters simply did not understand. “Did you let your kids curse?” New Beard challenged us finally. I looked at Notta.

She shrugged. “Not so much. I read to them a lot, tried to build up their vocabularies.” She laughed a little. “If one of them did swear, I made sure they knew it was not nice and they’d better not say that in front of their father. He was one of the mouth-washers-with-soap people.”

“What about you, Mrs. G?” the very involved young woman asked.

I hesitated. “I’m an English teacher by trade,” I said. They all groaned again; two of the young women muttered something about dodging the question. “Okay, I started out reading to them and building their vocabularies, like Notta. But we seemed to keep running into TV shows or radio programs where those words were said. A lot. So, when they were little and they heard someone say such a word, I taught them to yell at the TV or radio, ‘Read a book! Get a vocabulary!’” My students started with Student Face 1, and then laughed.

“And they went along with it?” a young man asked.

I shrugged. “Until they got older and all their ‘friends’ were cussing blue streaks. Then I had to make a deal with them: they could use any profanity they liked if and only if, they could define it correctly, tell me its part of speech and come up with at least two synonyms that would work just as well.” Student Face 1 all around. “Look, my point is, these words, whether they have four letters or more, mean absolutely nothing by themselves. It’s the meaning we give them when we say them or hear them. So, when we talk about ‘four-letter words,’ we’re talking about more than a cuss word here or a vulgarity there. We’re talking about words that create bad feelings in our minds, words that hurt, or irritate or anger us.”

“Like ‘diet,’” J- said.

“Which can also mean a formal meeting of religious clergy or important people,” I pointed out. “I’m sure there are many people in history who thought that kind of Diet also was a four-letter word.”

“Especially if you’re Martin Luther,” Notta said. We looked at her with questions unspoken. “Well, in 1521, he had to go to a town called Worms in Germany to defend his beliefs. So you could say he had to deal with…”

We all groaned. “A Diet of Worms.”

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