Sunday, September 14, 2008


Things that happen in elementary school usually are of such a mundane nature that they are just not retrievable from the mind years later. That is, unless they are in the nature of a shock. And I guess I'd have to put today's entry in that category. It happened in 1947 when I was in the sixth grade. Some boy in class, probably Tommy Graves, had just used the word “busted” instead of “broken.” Mrs. Peterson, our teacher, drew herself up in to a formidable presence, looked down her long nose at the class and said in very loud, precise English, “The word you want to use is ‘Broken.” And then she added even more slowly and distinctly, “A bust is the breast of a woman.”

I can still see that event play out in front of my eyes. She has her dark blue polka-dotted dress on. Her hair is upswept with a rat under her pompadour. Her purse, made to be a handbag but carried by her with the straps over her shoulder and tucked ever so tightly in her armpit, looks ridiculous even to a 6th grader. Her long face is serious and dark. She says one more time for emphasis, “A bust is the breast of the woman.”

Society was less sophisticated and more naive during that time, at least as far as what was appropriate for children was concerned. I have mentioned earlier that my family never called any part of the anatomy by its real name. As far as my family was concerned, saying the word “breast” was not even in the realm of the possible. Any word describing a bodily function or part had to be spoken by employing a euphemism. Had my sister and I ever said “breast,” we would have been warned the first time and our mouths washed out with soap the second time. These were forbidden words in the Dobbins household and were not to be uttered at all, for any reason.

So you can imagine my shock, and my total humiliation, when Mrs. Peterson uttered that statement in front of Tommy Graves and Sammie Collins and Charles Clifner and Allan Austin and Bob Becott and Joseph Fayant and Chucky Newmyer and Bernard Barrad and Donald Watkins and Larry Baldwin, and the rest of the boys, all of whom we girls were beginning to be aware of in a totally different and puzzling way. My shock imprinted this episode on my psyche for all time. Sixty years later I can close my eyes and see this event replayed in my mind.

Today, older and wiser I grudgingly make allowances for the term “drug bust”. After all, even I know it is not correct or meaningful to say “drug broke” when you mean a drug bust. But if I hear a cop or a TV commentator say something like having to bust down a door, I feel myself automatically drawing up into as near a formidable presence as I can, tucking my invisible purse tighter in my armpit and saying, “We do not say the word ‘bust.’ A bust is the breast of a woman.”

I somehow cannot make my peace with this breech of the King’s English, regardless of whether “bust” in this day and age is now sitting comfortably in one of the dictionaries that also allows "funner" to be an acceptable word. My husband is now sensitized to this particular use of “bust” and I know that what he is saying under his breath when he hears the offending word emanating from our television is nothing more than an advanced rendering of what I am probably going to be saying in a few short seconds – and for the umpteenth time.

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