Children these days know a lot of scary words–and I’m not talking about the ones they supposedly learned from watching cable TV or listening to Marilyn Manson. (Nice try, but trust me: no one believes they learned it anywhere but from you.) No, the scary words I am thinking about are the ones like oops (uttered just after you have forbidden the use of your Grandmother’s bone china tea set for a Teddy Bear picnic), I think I was supposed to give this to you last week (spoken in a rush all as one word while holding a crumpled memo detailing some vitally important meeting or event that occurred the night before), and maybe (as in “Did you remember to put your rat back in his cage like I asked you to?” “Um, maybe.”). But, when it comes right down to it, there is only one word that is absolutely guaranteed to strike fear into the heart of every parent, every time, and that word is nuthin–especially when it is uttered in response to that most common of parental questions: “What’s going on in there?”
For example: say your child runs into the kitchen and hurriedly grabs the broom and dustpan (items that have heretofore been regarded by this child as some sort of quaint decoration, like the flat irons and washboards that adorn the walls of Cracker Barrel-type establishments). Shocked at their sudden (and desperate) interest in the domestic arts, you ask them “What’s going on?” only to hear a breezy (or is it breathless?) nuthin. The same is also true when your child suddenly “needs” a six foot strip of paper towels (“What for?” “Nuthin”), or demands that all of the doors and windows be shut at once (Why?” “So, you know, nuthin like, gets out.”). (Conversely, a sudden request that all the doors and windows be opened so that “Nuthin, you know, like, stays in” can be equally distressing.)
Now, it may be that I am not remembering my own childhood correctly (something my mother insists on pointing out to me after nearly every column), but it seems to me that nuthin is very much a product of this generation: my generation’s go-to words were I dunno and not me (immortalized by Bil Keane as the hard-working little poltergeists who wreak household havoc). And, again, maybe my memory is faulty, but it also seems to me that nuthin is a much more sinister fellow than either not me or I dunno, because, on some level, nuthin is a complete denial of reality. Think about it: how can there be nothing going on? After all, even when the day comes that the Universe is tottering along on its last legs, it will still be actively decaying. Ok, maybe that’s a little extreme, but you get my point: there is always something going on.
And, at least with I dunno and not me, there is the admission of such: lamps are being broken, muddy footprints are being made–we just don’t know by whom. With nuthin however, not only is there a complete denial of anything untoward going on, there is, in the sullenly defensive tone in which it is issued, a sneering disbelief that anything is being accused in the first place. Nuthin is always spoken in the righteously indignant tone of one who must put up, yet again, with being falsely accused. (Much like the way the poor guy who shows up at the airport wearing his favorite ticking backpack must once again put up with being strip-searched.)
Still, I suppose that I dunno, not me, and even nuthin aren’t really the scariest words that children know. After all, they could just answer the question “what’s going on in there?” with the truth–and that’s a prospect that I find to be truly terrifying.