Here is my column for this week:
What ever happened to your butt?
I’m talking about the word, not necessarily the body part (although after two kids, it would be fair to wonder, what did exactly happen to my entire body? It’s all about 2 inches lower than it used to be).
Having kids means you spend more time than usual talking about body parts. For the most part, my husband, Philip, and I have tried to go with the anatomical names for things, avoiding slang. Well, mostly. Pee is just easier to say than urine. (This is a parenting column. If you can’t talk fluids, you should move along.)
There are a lot of slang words for your backside, including backside: tushie, bottom, behind, bum and, the one my mom used, dupey. We’ve gone with butt, probably because my sister, who is 11 years older than me, used to chase me after bathtime and threaten to bite my butt if I didn’t get my pajamas on. I remember it as a funny game, but she probably remembers exasperated evenings helping my mom get us all ready for bed.
So when Jack, 5, has asked the kinds of questions kids do, like, “Why do we wear underpants?”, we’ve responded with, “To keep your butt warm.”
Or when Viv, 3, asks where poopy comes from (OK, we use that euphemism, too), we answer, “From your butt.”
And the common, “Sit down on your butt in that chair and eat your dinner!”
It’s a good all-around word, and I’m fine with it.
But, like all the bad habits my perfect children develop, this one originated at day care: a song. A song that must be sung at dinner. That also must be accompanied by hilarious laughter. It goes a little something like this:
“My booty booty booty booty booty butt!”
Commence cackling, falling off your chair and then your little sister chiming in.
It’s tough to fight that kind of allure. Philip and I tried to ignore it, like most dinnertime shenanigans. Try not to make eye contact, don’t laugh if something is funny but inappropriate. Hide in the kitchen when you start giggling over bad behavior or mispronounced words. Case in point: “Mom, what is that?” “It’s a reptile.” “An erectile?” “No! Reptile. Reptile.” “An erectile?” And on.
When Jack sang the booty song, it was a little funny. He never referred to his actual body part as that. But when Viv picked it up, it stuck.
Her booty was cold. She had to dress her booty, talk about her booty and sing about her booty. The prude in my wondered: When, exactly, is she going to shake her booty?
And that’s the problem I have with the word. You sit on a butt, you shake a booty. Or that’s how it feels to me.
Even a cursory Google of “parents hate booty word” brought up 168 million results, including a quick guide to twerking. Dinner with two kids is maddening enough without adding twerking to the mix. Merriam-Webster says “booty” is the “alteration of an English-based Creole word, ultimately from Early Modern English bottie, perhaps from bottom plus ‘ie’.”
My beloved Oxford English Dictionary, which follows the evolution of the English language, traces its first use in print to 1926, in a controversial and bestselling novel by C. Van Vechten (who was from Cedar Rapids) that portrays life in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. (Thanks to Jan Brue Enright of Augustana College for looking it up for me.) The O.E.D. goes on to define “booty” in mostly sexual terms: as intercourse, or a woman as an object of desire.
And through the years, that hyper-sexual connotation has stuck.
That’s why I don’t like it.
I don’t need any more messages about sex for our kids. We avoid shirts for Viv that talk about being spoiled, a princess, a cutie pie or anything. Just like we avoid ones for Jack about being tough. Let’s just be who we are for a bit, innocent and childlike.
I know that language evolves, and maybe when Viv’s kids are little “booty” will be as innocuous as “tushie” is now. But we’re not there yet.
We’ll never end experimenting with the boundaries of language in our house — it’s why the two of them laugh and say “stupid” or “poopybutt” or, the less offensive but still somehow really funny, “eyeball.” Language is good fun — I know this, I built a career out of loving it and spent my college years poring over texts to understand the exact meaning an author intended.
But until I have to really explain why someone might sexualize a booty, I think we’ll stick with butt. Because when it comes to raising our kids, I’d like a little less testosterone and estrogen for now, and a little more childhood.
Reach senior news editor Jacqueline Palfy Klemond at firstname.lastname@example.org.