I learned the word ‘whore’ because of a cow.
My parents and I were up in Maine visiting my mom’s side of the family and staying with my grandparents at their camp on Spaulding Lake. I was…ten? Somewhere around there is my best guess — old enough to recognize bad language when I heard it, but so young as to be not quite brave enough to try it on for size. (As opposed to a younger cousin, who came out of the womb swearing like a longshoreman.)
One of the ways in which I amused myself during our two-week hiatus in The County was to climb the hill behind the camp to visit the dairy farm belonging to my mother’s cousin
A–. This was a small operation — one barn and somewhere between twenty and thirty Holstein cows. During the summer, the animals grazed an enormous pasture. Twice a day, they returned to the barn, found their stalls all on their own (yes, they did; cows have good memories), and were hooked up to the big stainless steel milkers. (I can hear the chug of those things to this day.) Soon the milk would begin to pass through the transparent tubes on its way to the big holding tank where it would be heated and sterilized. (Pasteurized? I don’t know the details of the milking trade, particularly back in the 1960s.) The barn would fill with the smell of warm milk, comforting and somewhat heady, and the barn cats would gather for their share.
One day I was hanging out, playing in the farmyard. In an effort to rotate grazing, the cows had been pastured across the road from the house rather than in the field behind the barn. Come milking time, they began to line up at the gate, waiting patiently for the moment when A– or one of the farm hands would open the barrier and see them safely across the road into the barn.
However, one cow was having none of it. I don’t know what her issue was, but cows (like all of us) have their irascible moments and this old girl was determined to have her way. Maybe she was in labor and wanted to drop her calf somewhere quiet and out of sight, a circumstance not unheard of. Maybe she was just feeling bitchy. Some cows are, although in my experience most of them are quite sweet-natured. At any rate, she hung back and when A– tried to drive her forward, she turned abruptly and crashed into the high undergrowth in a bid for freedom.
He was after her in a flash, flailing through the interlaced brambles and branches. She moved back and forth, seeking a path away from him, but it was a tight fit in there and she was a big girl. Her maneuverability wasn’t what she’d hoped. At any rate, he got ahead of her. As she veered away from him and started back toward the gate, A– picked up a rock and heaved it against her flank with all his strength. “Get outta here, you jeezly son of a ho-ah!” (“Ho-Ah” is how people up in The County say ‘whore.’ I’ll probably catch hell for this from some northern Mainer, and it’ll be pointed out to me that not everyone has that depth of accent, but my mom’s cousin did and so does everyone I personally know in the great State of Maine. And, just to set the record straight, I’m not poking fun. I happen to like a Maine accent.)
I felt a rush of anger and embarrassment. Anger because of the thrown stone. (I liked the cows more than I liked A–.) Embarrassment because, although I’d never heard that word before, I instinctively knew it must be a pretty bad one.
I thought about that word all day, trying without success to figure it out. Toward dinner time, I returned to the camp. As we sat down to eat (my grandparents, parents and I squeezed together around a little table set smack in the middle of the floor), I said to the world in general, “A– called one of the cows a bad name today, but I don’t know what it means.”
The adults exchanged looks. Bad language from that particular cousin was nothing new. “What did he say?” my mother asked.
I was stricken. No way was I going to say a potentially bad word aloud in front of my stern and disapproving grandmother. I stared at my dinner plate. “I don’t want to say it.”
“Then spell it,” Mom said.
I crooked a finger at her to bend down close so I could whisper in her ear. “H-O-R.”
She smiled. “That’s not how you spell it, but you’re right. It’s a bad word.” She scooped potatoes onto her plate.
“But what’s it mean?” I asked.
She froze. My mom’s vocabulary of profanity consisted of few words: Shit. Damn. Son of a bitch. An occasional “God dammit” when she was particularly vexed. No F-bombs. No H-O-R bombs, either. This woman, who avoided all talk of a personal or — Lord help us! — sexual nature, who in the not-too-distant future would be verbally and emotionally unable and unwilling to explain the facts of life to her child, was being asked to define H-O-R.
She opted for the easy route. “It means a not very nice lady,” she said, and passed the potatoes to my father.
I felt a flare of dissatisfaction. I could tell by her tone of voice and her body language that this was not an accurate definition, that something integral was being left out on purpose, but I had no idea what. It took getting home to New York and unearthing our dictionary before I discovered the truth. Ah!
With that juicy nugget lodged firmly in my mind (and in my growing vocabulary), I went out to face the world.