If you are easily offended, look away now.

I lived on a quiet road. There was no traffic and the kids all played in the street as was normal in the 1950s. One time, at the top of the road there was a bunch of teddy boys standing around their bikes. And I mean cycles, not motor bikes. Teddy boys were the forerunners of rockers.

There they stood in their leather gear, swinging their bicycle chains (truly), smoking and trying to look cool. They said the F word a few times. I was about 9 or 10 and it was the first time I had ever heard it used! What does F *** mean I asked. Looking back they were really decent in their response. They could have said something really shocking but all the leader of the gang said was, “It’s the king of all the swear words.”

I’m old enough to remember the first time the F word was said on TV. It was said by the UK writer and critic Kenneth Tynan during a satirical discussion show in 1965. It caused great consternation at the time. Amusement too because he had a stutter so it was a long time before he said the whole word – just ffffffff  followed quite a few seconds later by the remainder of the expletive – thus reducing its shock value! The F word is so ubiquitous now that no one is shocked by it any more.  Comics only have to say the word to get a laugh from the audience, whereas when I was younger the use of the word would have received a horrified gasp. 

At my grammar school I can remember us all reading D.H Lawrence’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover under our desks during lessons. Well, not really reading. Just looking for all the swear words and what we then would have called ‘the dirty bits.’

In our school library there was a well thumbed copy of the Dictionary of Slang. I volunteered as a librarian at lunch time so spent a great deal of time in the library, mainly poring over the Dictionary of Slang seeking out the meaning to many of the words that were unknown to me.

Before lockdown I became addicted to the online word games, Upwords and Words with Friends – both very similar to Scrabble. The American makers of the online games are quite prudish and often impose censorship on the words that we try to play. For example, one cannot use the word, ‘slut’ which, although not a nice word, is not a swear word. I would not expect the games to allow words that are truly offensive but  … slut? Oddly, if you play offensive words in Yiddish they’re allowed – but not if you give their English equivalents!

During games one can ‘chat’ with one’s opponents.  Here is a conversation I recently had with an American friend online (hello Kathy!) during a game of Words after she played the word, ‘rectum’ which was allowed in the game but not in the chat where it appeared as “r****m”!

Me: Your word has been asterisked. Whatever next?!  (Interesting aside –  asterisked.)

Me: Bum. Just testing. 

She: Laughter emoji.

Me: A**e   (asterisked by the game not me)

She: Laughter emoji.

Me: Ooh. Not allowed. Bottom? (was not asterisked)

She: Tooo funny!!!!!!

Me: Tuches – just testing  …  

… That fooled them. Is Yiddish* for all of the above. 

Me: They let me use the word Trump. A very bad bad bigly bad word. TR**P.

She: Now that’s funny!

Me: My own censor at work. T***P.

She: Hahahahaha!!

Me: What about Tampax?

She: That came through.

Me: Ooh. They allowed that. But not s**t for some reason.

She: Ha!!

Me: Not saying the Sh.. word. Saying the slu* word.

She: Oooohh now that’s interesting.

She: W***e

She: Ha! Who*e!

Me: Have never been able to play sl*t (their asterisks not mine) yet it (slut) is a pretty innocuous word.

Me: Maybe it has another meaning in the USA?

Me: w****r. I feel like a naughty schoolgirl. 

Me: I’d quite like to blog this but will probably end up with a page of asterisks!


So, here we are.  As you can see, I did blog it. My take on swearing.

And why fish hooks and barnacles? Those are the words I used when our children were growing up and I didn’t want to swear in front of them.  They are so much a part of me that even now I sometimes find myself saying “fish hooks” when I miss a vital shot in a table tennis tournament, much to the amusement of the other players.

The worst word I ever said in front of my children when they were growing up was ‘bloody’.  One time when I collected our younger son from nursery, the nursery teacher told me that she had  been having trouble doing up the zip of his anorak.  She had said to him, “I just don’t know what’s the matter with it” to which he, who was four years old at the time, replied, “The bloody zip’s broken, that’s what! “- clearly repeating what he had heard me say at home. I was able to laugh it off but I think I would have hung my head in shame had he said anything worse!

*Yiddish – a language used by Jewish people in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. It was originally a German dialect with words from Hebrew and several modern languages. It still has some 200,000 speakers mainly in the USA, Israel and Russia.  The Yiddish language has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years and can now be studied at many universities including Oxford and London. There is a Yiddish Book Center (which OH and I have visited) on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.  It is a cultural and educational institution, dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language, as well as the culture and history those books represent. eg theatre, film, newspapers, photographs etc.

Many Yiddish words are now familiar everyday words used in English. For example, schlep, chutzpah, nosh, schmooze, spiel, tuches and many others. Yiddish has words to describe things that there are no words for in English – for example the parents of the people your children marry are your machatonim. 


© Andrea Neidle. My Life in Poems

© Photos taken by Andrea Neidle at The Yiddish Book Center, Amherst, Massachusetts


  1. Brilliant Andrea and thanks for the shout out!! As you and I know well, is just absolutely hysterical how silly the WORD powers that be are when it comes to some words! But it does indeed add to our fun!

    Liked by 1 person

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