Saturday, July 14, 2007


I've been thinking a lot about foul language lately.

I've never been one to use a lot of coarse language, probably because I actually care about language. But a lot of my friends do, or did, and often for the same reason that they say "soda" instead of "cola"... it's just what they've learned in their region or their family or from their television.

What interests me the most is that "bad words" seem to be arranged into the wrong order of offensiveness. What I mean is, the words which should be most offensive seem to be the least offensive, and vice versa. Well, not across the board, but nearly.

I find that there is general misunderstanding of the various kinds of "bad words" so I shall now teach a lesson in Profanity 101:

There are three basic types of "bad words": vulgarity, profanity and cursing.

Vulgarity is a fascinating concept, and these are the words which should, I think, be least offensive to us. Our word for it comes from Latin (vulgaritas) and means, roughly, "the multitude." It was originally a term used to delineate the language used by different classes of people. Most of the words that describe body parts, bodily functions or sexual acts are words that are vulgar, or common. A refined person would not use them.

Of course in the United States this has ceased to be true, since we work so hard (so we say) to eliminate class distinctions.

Nevertheless, the "queen mother of swear words" (the "F word") is often nothing mroe than a vulgarity. In some sense we as a culture have agreed to these words. There is no reason, for instance, that I should feel free to type "crap" right now but not another excratory word that starts with "s". There is no real difference in the words, other than history. And that one is offensive to many people, and one is offensive to a few people. I'm sure someone out there can explain this to me.

Profanity, on the other hand, is the taking of something that should be holy and using it in a way that makes it unholy. It is an attempt to make the holy something common. Thus, the using of the Lord's name in vain, or to speak of any holy thing in an inappropriate way. Perhaps the "f word" does this, since it takes the holy act of sex and gives it a sense of meaningless physical action.

Cursing, of course, is the wishing of harm to someone. The most evil curse is to wish damnation upon someone (or something). This has become common language that is widely acceptable for some reason unknown to me.

Perhaps what has caused me to think about this lately is that a lot of Christians in my generation have felt a newfound freedom to use vulgarity and cursing in their common speech. In fact, it's hip right now to feel free to use both, even in church services. The concept behind this freedom is, actually, a concept that I think is noble (though slightly misguided). Most people I've talked to about this say that the reason that we must allow language like this up front at church is that it allows us to be more authentic with our lives. In other words, "I use vulgar words when I am at home. I should not project a false impression of perfection to the church. So I will use vulgar words at church so that people will see the real me."

And, in some ways, I heartily applaud this. I think it is wise to be forthcoming with our flaws and issues, and even to proclaim them publicly.

At the same time, I think the solution to the problem is wrong-headed. It seems to me that the solution should not be only to admit one's faults, but to strive to overcome them. In other words, rather than speaking vulgarity from the pulpit, one should try to stop speaking it at home. Oh, I suppose I should take this moment to mention that this is not anything that my pastor(s) have an issue with... more of an observation of my own generation.

Anyway, I won't go into all the Biblical reasons to watch how we speak. I have plenty of personal examples (some here on this blog!) of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and in the wrong way. And I have, yes, I have used language at some time that falls into one of the categories above. And done far worse things than that.

So. It doesn't offend me to hear vulgarities. I don't use "hard" vulgarities myself, though I'm sure I have a couple of words in my vocabulary that certain portions of the U.S. would find offensive. I don't use profanity if I can help it, and I try to steer away from curses (as I actually think they can be effectual and thus are dangerous).

I was just interested to hear so many Christians defending it lately. And as my good buddy Shakespeare would say, methinks they do protest too much.

Good night, and good luck.