The Two Words My Parents (And Maybe Yours) Objected To
One man’s meat is another man’s vulgarism
By Ed Goldman
When we were kids, the two-word expression that my parents considered the vilest thing for my brothers and me to say was “Shut up!”
Not “up yours” or its many colorful variants, nor the familiar hermaphroditic directive that mangrove killifish are known to be able to accomplish. (Okay, that second example is pretty obscure. Just think of someone saying, “Firetruck you!” with the five letters after “f” missing in action.)
My Mom, Dad and Me: They’re happy because my mouth is closed
The following three dilemmas are emerging:
- I’m not sure why “Shut up!” was considered more unacceptable than “Drop dead!” or its three-word upgrade, “Go to Hell!”
- I’m not sure why “Be quiet!” passed muster but its doppelgänger “Shut up!” was verboten.
- I’m not sure why I’m suddenly writing in German.
“Shut up!” was always a highly popular expression in decidedly low-brow venues.
For example, Moe said it to the other Two Stooges in innumerable comedy shorts (I should clarify that Moe also said it while wearing comedy trousers). Abbott told Costello to shut up more times than I could count (possibly because when I watched them I hadn’t yet learned to count. Once I got older I found them incredibly lame to watch).
But it was also part of the last line in “The Apartment,” the comparatively sophisticated comedy by Billy Wilder. The full line, delivered by Shirley MacLaine to Jack Lemmon was “Shut up and deal.”
My favorite use of the expression was in Chapter 10 of Ring Lardner’s 1920 book, “The Young Immigrunts,” presented here with the original punctuation and spelling (including “Immigrunts”):
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
As with many words and expressions that some people consider vulgar—think “darn,” “gol-dang” and “dagnabbit” for such old reliables as “damn,” “goddamn” and “goddammit”—”shut up” has done some shape-shifting throughout the years.
This is why we have the following:
- The possibly British “Shirrup!” (which sounds like what a very drunk person might call syrup or stirrup);
- “Shaddup” (which sounds like what a cook in a seafood diner barks to a server when an order’s ready);
- “Shoosh,” a distant cousin of another euphemism, “Sheesh!”
My personal fave, which people with taste totally deplore, has always been “Shut yer pie hole.” It’s an expression that conveys not only the confidence of its convictions but also implies that the recipient may not be someone people will wish to sit across the table from at I-Hop.
When I was a kid, teachers were always telling me to “quiet down,” especially when they were trying to address the class during fire drills. They told my parents I was “disruptive.”
As you know, that word has come to be considered complimentary—but only when the tech industry uses it to praise a new app. Not when a ninth-grader announces, “Golda Meir looks like Lyndon Johnson in a dress,” a finding I was eager to share while our teacher was discussing the Mideast Conflict in 1965.
Now that I think of it, this may have been the only time I heard a teacher say, “Shut up!” Even my parents might not have minded.