You keep using that word. . .

inigo-montoyaSo, the subject broached (by Logan in his last post) is swearing, or coarse language in general. There are a couple of things that need to be pointed out, I guess. First, this is a tricky subject to tackle as a Christian. There are two things that are pretty clearly prohibited, Biblically speaking: coarse jesting and swearing.

But swearing has two definitions: making an oath or using rude words. And it’s the less-common version of swearing that involves sweearing by something that is prohibited: not the idea of simply uttering swear words. The specific prohibition occurs in the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus says:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.

And this is important, but it is not exactly what Logan was talking about or what we usually talk about when we tell people not to swear. Instead, we mean that one shouldn’t use any of a particular set of “dirty” words. For the sake of clarity, I will call using dirty words cursing.

Cursing is closely related to swearing, historically  speaking. I can think of one good, archaic example (I remember reading it a lot in Mallory): Zounds is, or was, a curse that originated as an abbreviation of the actual swear, “by God’s wounds”. So it is, as Jesus forbade, a calling upon something holy or revered to reinforce the truth of a statement. Some more modern curses that probably stem from such use of language are the obvious damn and hell. I’m still puzzled about Jinkies.

We also come close to mixing cursing with swearing when we preface obvious curses with holy, which seems to be a pretty common linguistic move. Still, holy shit is hardly an abbreviation of “by the holy shit”: rather, it is an exclamation to be shouted or muttered in times of surprise or distress. And lots of modern-day swearing actually falls into this category of exclamation, expletive, or the now-too-heavily-connotated-to-be-anything-but-hilarious ejaculation. (l can just imagine trying to teach early 20th Century novels to high-school students and spending multiple class periods guiding them patiently over the other meaning of this word).

So, if we’re not calling upon something holy, trying to bolster our honesty, what’s the problem with swearing, cursing, or ejaculating (*snrk*)? Well, obviously the meaning of the words right? I mean we all know that most of the bad words refer to rude things or actions. Well rude isn’t the right word is it? They refer to private things or things that should not be mentioned in public. But, then again, sometimes we can mention them in public when we need to talk about them–but when that happens we expect ourselves and others to use different, more acceptable words. You would be offended by a doctor who asked for a shit sample instead of a stool sample, or referred to certain anatomical areas by their more colorful titles. (t-i-t-l-e-s–Freudian slip avoided).

And the example Logan used from MSNBC’s coverage of the Zimmerman case adds further difficulty, because he’s not using the F-bomb to describe what that word denotes. He is simply using it to add vulgarity or emphasis to his statement.

Ah! here’s a similarity: he’s using it to add emphasis. Just like calling upon something holy as a witness to our sincerity, we can make ourselves more persuasive or forceful with modern swearing. “Effing brilliant!” we might say, as praise; or “effing ridiculous” as condemnation. (I, too, find my squeamishness silly–but not enough to type out the actual word). Modern swearing seems strange when we look at it this way because to add reinforcement it chooses to use the vulgar instead of the valuable.

Perhaps I could commit a small heresy by updating the Sermon on the Mount to “let your adjectives stand alone.” There is a sin that comes from swearing: the sin of insincerity or dishonesty, but that’s not why it’s offensive. I’m not sure yet if I can nail it down. Maybe it’s just cultural conventions. Maybe it’s our own uncomfortableness with our bodies and their functions. Maybe it’s a combination of a lot of things.

My personal principle is that mere word usage cannot possibly be a sin. Language as language is morally neutral. But obviously, the effects that our words produce can be very powerful, and we can sin thereby all-too-easily.

However, if we live in a culture that stigmatizes certain words as offensive, and it is sinful to willfully offend our neighbors, then possibly the words themselves are sinful in a a sort of indirect way: not in themselves, but in the offense they unavoidably cause.

I’m rapidly approaching my word limit, so I’ll stop here. It’s a tricky issue that brings together language and morality and public discourse and governmental censorship and all sorts of other things. I’ll have to come back with more of a finished thought.

Comments with suggestions are welcome.

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About Derrick

Derrick lives and works in South Carolina where he teaches English at a technical college and raises his two small children with his wife, Danielle.
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