“Sorry, my dad says I’m going through puberty,” says my neighbor. He’s 12 and his voice has just cracked during a rant on the merits of Panic! at the Disco. I’m 14; I prefer Fall Out Boy and my voice (mostly) stopped cracking a year ago. And because I’m 14, squeaky voices are hilarious.
But this time, I don’t even chuckle. Something is bothering me. “Wait, wait. Go back,” I tell him. “How did you say that word?”
He repeats it slowly and again fumbles the first syllable, his tongue rising not quite high enough to form the right vowel: “Poo-ber-ty.” The result is vaguely flatulent and totally off-putting. Something shifts in my brain: from then on the word makes me cringe.
Years later I’m more self-aware, and I try to find some deeper motive for my aversion but come up with nothing. Puberty is awesome. It’s the process that evolves you from a cute but wimpy starter Pokémon into a fully-formed fire-breathing creature. Who cares if I have to spend a few gangly years covered in spots? The name for this process, however, is lacking. Metamorphosis, transmutation: both convey the transformative arc that finally culminates in maturity. Next to them, “puberty” flops.
Flash back to 2006 and I find myself trying to correct my neighbor. “Pew-ber-ty” I enunciate. He smiles and tries again, his pronunciation corrected. But my new-found animosity is unaffected. Worse, I start to loathe any word that starts with the same syllable: putrid, pupa, puce, puerile. I try to sterilize it with repetition but, stripped of meaning, it’s just a handful of wet syllables in a blender. “Puberty, puberty, puberty.” Defeated, I lock the word up in the back of my mind and refuse to grant it parole.