Dear Emily: What Is the Appropriate Thing to Say upon Hitting One’s Thumb with a Hammer?

Incandescence, by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson

In our one-stoplight town, we are 30 miles from every essential establishment other than a superlative yarn shop, but when the car needs major work, bamboo and camel-hair blends just don’t do the trick. So I grab my knitting bag and settle down for the morning in my far-flung mechanic’s Friendly Waiting Room.

And I contentedly knit.

At first the mechanic and his crew of well-trained buccaneers were concerned that I would be bored, but when I assured them that hours spent alone in a small room were a mini-vacation from the demands of a household of teenagers, they understood.

So through the years they have become accustomed to greeting me with a smile before ushering me into my inner sanctum, where they generally leave me in peace until it is time to announce that The Car Is Ready.

One day, however, Jim, the chief buccaneer, arrived in the doorway, wringing his hands and looking like a young boy who has just been caught kicking the cat.

“I’m so sorry,” he apologized.

He's so sorry. Really.


This is not a statement one wants to hear in the mechanic’s Friendly Room. My knitting terminated.

“What’s wrong?” I got out.

“The language,” Jim said. “I am sorry that you had to overhear that.”

Having been deep in the knitting zone, I actually hadn’t heard anything, so the most I could intelligently get out was a blank stare.

Jim mistook this for distress, and continued his apology. “The mechanics — they forgot that it wasn’t just a bunch of guys,” he said, “and they talked as if, well, they were a bunch of guys. I am so very very sorry that you had to overhear that.”

It seemed easier to reassure him, and frankly, if I had managed to overhear a bunch of guys talking like a bunch of guys because they were unaware of the weaving diva in the little room, I wouldn’t have minded beyond wondering what it was about my car that was causing them so much consternation.

But I have always been grateful to Jim for his concern, because he recognized — unlike many people today — that it’s okay to talk a certain way within in a certain group, but certainly not okay when Other People — like Knitting Matriarchs, or Children, or just General People in the Vicinity — are in the mix.

Understandably, everyone exclaims  when they hit their thumb with a hammer, and, in most cases, it probably sounds like a chicken by-product. Some words just pop out more readily than others, and Goodness Gracious Sakes Alive Dear Mamma is just too long for most people. Sometimes, as my mother says, the situation just calls for a good four-letter word.

But other times,  a four (or more)-letter word is the easy way out of having to actually think and put one’s thoughts into coherent form. When one is angry or irritated or distressed but has not hit one’s thumb with a hammer, one can train oneself to sound like a reasonably educated humanoid, suitable to being overheard by a general populace.

“They’re just words,” some argue.

True. So are “I love you” and “I wish you had never been born.” Different messages, those.

The younger set seeks to obscure vulgarity by using the word “freakin'”, which is even more annoying for its lack of the letter g, and worse yet, the absence of an apostrophe. Speakers are simultaneously not saying a socially unacceptable word while they are saying enough of it to make their meaning clear. Make up your minds, already.

Port Townsend Bay, by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson


I am old enough to remember using the terms Lady and Gentleman in reference to actual people, and, while I am grateful that I never had to worry whether or not my well-turned ankle flashed from beneath the petticoats, I do wish that we would continue to observe, in this androgynous society of ours, a decorum of speech based upon whether we are in mixed company or not, and whether or not there are children about.

Jim understands this, and we clearly need more Jims to teach us to exercise a sense of acumen and discernment in our daily speech. Oh, and if you do hit your thumb with a hammer, do so try to do it in unmixed company.

Al Fresco -- Original Oil by the Norwegian Artist, Steve Henderson of Steve Henderson Fine Art

About This Woman Writes

Carolyn Henderson is the marketing manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art. She writes about life, art, and the art of life.
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