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  • The Zoo Story

    It started over the word “but” — or “butt,” depending on how you spell it.

    When we first moved to the DC area in 2001, that was a big word around our house. For a brief period, we had to admonish our children and tell them not to use the word as it relates to the human anatomy. But (no pun intended) we soon found ourselves unable to use the word in a conjunctive sense without being told why it was a bad idea.

    “Oooh, Daddy used the word,” they said in joyous glee (glee always comes in unison). “Daddy, you’re not supposed to say that.”

    “But,” I protested, “that wasn’t the bad butt. It was, uh, the good but.”

    Thus was born the “good but” and the “bad butt,” a slight, subtle, but nonetheless important distinction for my children to draw at that nascent phase of their lives.

    If nothing else, pre-school children are literal. And when you have three kids only 11 1/2 months apart, literal comes at you with the volume and intensity of a presidential press conference.

    So my wife and I had to find some way to bring compound sentences back into our home speech.

    “The good but,” I explained, “is when you say, ‘I want to do this, but I can’t right now.’ The bad butt is when you refer to someone’s bottom.”

    That seemed to work for a time, until my youngest daughter and I went to the zoo. We were walking from site to site on a brisk January day. We saw the pandas, the giraffes, the elephants. And then we went to the beaver exhibit.

    “Daddy, where’s the beaver?”

    “He’s in his house.”

    “What do you call his house?”

    “Well, Emma,” I said, steeling myself. “It’s a dam.”

    “Oh, Daddy…” she said with a level of sincerity only petite 4-year-olds can muster. “That’s a bad word.”

    “No, no Emma. It’s not the bad ‘damn.’ It’s the good dam.”

    “Oh,” she said, her wheels turning as onlookers snickered. “So you mean there’s a good but, and a bad butt, and a good dam, and a bad damn.”

    “Yes.”

    “Well, Daddy,” Emma said with a sense of confidence. “I don’t say the bad butt, and I don’t say the bad damn. I just say shit.”

    I had no retort, just a sheepish reply.

    “Well, Emma, there’s no such thing as good shit.”

    And a man walking by said, “I beg to differ.”