I was standing outside a coffee shop in Harlem with my two kids when my son dropped half of his $4 vegan peanut butter cookie on the sidewalk. As we watched the pigeons peck at the overpriced crumbs, my brain said, “Sh*t!” But out loud, I said, “Skarmoosh!”
If you don’t know what this word means, it’s because I made it up. I don’t remember the details of its origin story, but I believe this pretend curse word emerged from the haze of 2020, when my daughter was learning to crawl, and my son was squirming on screen in remote pre-K. Sleep deprived and mentally drained, I had never needed to curse more. Perhaps it was this desperation that led me to one day exclaim: “skarmoosh!”
The “sk” sound gave it lift, while the “oosh” provided a soft landing. Silly and fun to say, the word caught on with my kids, and soon became a catchall in our household. When the children refused to pick up the cars, trains, and stuffies covering the living room floor, they were being total skarmooshes. If I stepped on a loose Lego, I yelped, “Skarmoosh!” If my son stole an extra Oreo from the cookie jar, my daughter gleefully tattled, “Miles is being a skarmoo-oosh!”
Whenever he heard us say it, my husband shook his head. “Can someone tell me what this word means?”
“If you know, you know,” I reply with a grin.
My husband and I both grew up in restrictive households, and were determined to create a more open environment where our kids felt comfortable questioning the world around them. To that end, we have a series of photographs of an artist giving the middle finger to various landmarks hanging in our living room. Needless to say, our kids enjoy the freedom of a more egalitarian approach to parenting. Already, at 8 and 3, they are more outspoken than I had ever been at those ages. Yet we have so far refrained from cursing around our kids and can’t stomach the idea of them swearing at us.
Before skarmoosh, I was, ironically, both the enforcer of the no-cursing policy and the one most likely to break it. I tried borrowing cute phrases, like “Cheese and crackers!” and “Biscuits!” from the animated series Bluey. For a while, I used, “Soggy samosas!” from the show Mira Royal Detective, a cultural reference dear to my childhood. If the writers on these shows were telling me anything, it was that I wasn’t the only one looking for alternatives to swearing. These food-inspired faux curses were fun for a while, but short-lived.
Skarmoosh was the work-around that actually stuck. It made my kids giggle, and it allowed me to blow off steam. We could say it in public without offending anyone, yet we all knew what it meant. Not only was customizing a curse word a handy way to avoid real curse words, it was weirdly bonding, creating a shared language within our family.
Like all phases of childhood, I knew this era wouldn’t last forever. But the invention of skarmoosh was a reminder that parenting didn’t always have to be heavy and serious. It was possible to be playful, lighthearted, and just as effective.
In a writing class, I recently read from John Koenig’s The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a book of words invented to describe the emotions we feel but can’t describe. There were made-up words like plata rasa, which refers to “the lulling sound of a running dishwasher,” or chrysalism, defined as “the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm.” I loved the idea of expanding language in this way, especially when it came to parenting. There were not enough words in the English language to capture the range of emotions I could feel in a split second. If I had to define skarmoosh, I would say: someone who is irritating you to the point of explosion, but who you also love and want to tickle.
In writing this piece, I discovered that “scaramouch” is actually a real word, with French and Italian roots. Pronounced differently than our version, it referred to a character in the comedia dell’arte, a period of European theater dating back to the 1600s. The secondary meanings on Merriam Webster were “rascal or scamp.”
Had my sleep-deprived brain appropriated this word from some obscure college course buried in my subconscious? Or a long-forgotten lyric from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? I couldn’t be sure, but I decided it didn’t matter. Skarmoosh was ours now, and we weren’t giving it back.
Sumitra Mattai is a New York City-based writer, textile designer and mother of two. She holds a BFA in Textile Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.