Back in second grade I took on a bully named Snakey who’d called my pa a word in Estonian that I wouldn’t repeat in English. Pa’d died from the influenza only a few years before that, and I didn’t take too kindly to anyone’s smearing his name, not in any language. Maybe Snakey thought all I knew was Croatian. I showed him, even though I was just a squirt. First I called him a big põrsas, meaning "pig," which I’d picked up from one of my brother’s Estonian pals, and then—socko!—one punch and Snakey was down with a busted nose.
After that I started paying close attention to the other ethnics. I listened to what they said, especially when they were drunk and hollering at each other. I collected their cuss words and insults. Pretty soon they figured out what I was up to and went along with my game. I only had to hear a word once to remember it. They taught me that joodik meant "drunkard" in Estonian, and träskpadda meant "swamp frog" in Swede, and that pupa-ma-n meant "kiss my butt" in Romanian. I told them if I knew enough cuss words in other languages, no kid would ever be able to pull a fast one in Old Country talk. They thought I was a hoot. And they gave me a nickname that stuck: Cuss.
By the end of second grade I could say "You look like a horse’s hinder" in Croatian, Turk, Slovenian, Italian, Estonian, Albanian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Swede, Finn, Polack, Czech, and even Arab, which I got from Perks, whose Granny knew a Gypsy who shacked up with a guy from Arabia. I knew a lot of other cuss words, too. Guess you could say I had the knack.