A Few Choice Words on Swearing

HawkgrrrlAsides, church, Culture, curiosity, God, Humor, LDS, Mormon, mormon, Mormons, obedience, scripture 31 Comments

What constitutes swearing?  Is it always wrong?  If so, why?

Where does swearing come from?  In the English language, we often refer to “four-letter” words as profanity.  Most of these words entered the pejorative lexicon of swear-words after the Norman conquest of 1066.  When William the Conquerer of Normandy became King of England, a linguistic hierarchy quickly took over; French words (Latin-based) were considered genteel, civilized, sophisticated, and were in vogue, while Germanic words (those four-letter words) were considered crude, unsophisticated, passe, and for the unwashed masses.  Essentially, most of these words had very similar definitions, but the preferred use of the French version took hold like wildfire among the courtiers and the wealthy, forever stigmatizing the Germanic versions.

I’m sure you can easily think of the Germanic counterparts for these flowery, French words:  fornication, defecation.   Over time, we have come to refer to the Latin-based words as “proper” names for things, and therefore inoffensive, but the German-based words are considered base, crude, or uneducated.  Is this really a fair bias against these words?  If they mean the same things, why are they bad?

Profanity generally fits into one of the following categories:

  • religious
  • sexual
  • excretory

But it can also include hate speech or words that are a specific personal insult to a group of people or an individual.  Some cultures consider the following language severe (that are less severe in English):  equating people with animals (German, Arabic, Dutch, Indonesian, Polish, Russian), violations of politeness protocols especially towards authority (Japanese & Korean), insults of mental illness (Russian) or referring to people as being diseased (Dutch).

Frankly, the English language is a lightweight when it comes to cranking out profanity, though.  IMO, Castillian has the most blood-curdling epithets known to man.  Most are blasphemous in nature and practically make me want to cry.  They are that bad.  I’m welling up just thinking about them.

So, of these types of swearing, are some worse than others?  Different cultures find different profanity themes more severe than others.  In English, the hierarchy tends to be:  Sexual, Excretory, Religious.  For Mormons, though, it’s probably more like this:

  • Religious – because taking the Lord’s name in vain is specificially prohibited in the Bible; practicing Mormons avoid this one like the plague.
  • Sexual – presumably because our bodies are sacred; speaking lightly or debasingly of sex acts diminishes them.
  • Excretory – I suppose to some extent related to treating the body with respect; this seems like the least offensive to me unless directed at another person.  The words, I mean.

I would argue that hate speech is the worst of all since it is directed at another person in anger.  Of course, within each category, some words are considered more severe than others.  So you may think a very mild religious based word like “damn” or “hell” is okay, but would not even think to use the grand Mother of all American swear-words (in the sexual category).

Mormons are notorious for their colorful expressions designed to avoid using profanity:

  • “Oh, my heck.”  I have never ever heard this stupid expression anywhere outside of Utah.  And I seldom hear anyone say the real version of this one either.
  • “Flip,” or “Fetch.”  Plus all their silly derivatives.
  • “Gad” instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Not a fan of this one, although it is also a Biblical name.  Somehow it sounds like something you’d hear in Fargo.

But Mormons aren’t the only ones trying to be more creative in swearing.  Here are a few others making the rounds (in part due to network censors, but also because I think people like to keep it fresh):

  • “Frak” has become popular thanks to the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series.
  • “Arse” instead of its American counterpart.  This one just seems funny to me.
  • “Bee-yatch.”  Adding a syllable makes it seem less harsh, somehow.  Also works for “Day-ammn,” as in “Day-ammn, he looked fine.”
  • “Mother puss bucket.”  Bill Murray used this in Ghostbusters, so it’s almost 30 years old.  Try this one in a business meeting if you want to leave an impression.
  • Just the name of the Fuddruckers restaurant gets us in stitches.
  • Liz Lemon on 30 Rock has come up with several creative ones lately such as “Hammer of Thor!”  Maybe “Lords of Kobol!” will catch on among BSG fans.
  • To circumvent network censors, some TV writers have gotten creative with mixing prefixes “dil” and “jack” with various suffixes.  Similarly, suffixes “hole” and “wad” and even “weed” can be mixed with various prefixes to create a whole pseudographia of swearing.  These pre- and suffixes retain innuendo without the stigma of familiarity.  George Carlin’s list can’t keep up.
  • Another creative “almost swear” approach is to hide the objectionable words within a phrase or a proper name or to cough or sneeze while saying the word (e.g. “slut sneezing”).  Middle school stuff.
  • Texting has created many new abbreviations for swear words.  It also puts LDS at an efficiency disadvantage in texting.  “OMGosh” just isn’t as brief.  You might wreck your car trying to text that.

So, is swearing sinful, and if so why?  Here are some of the assumptions that are usually trotted out.

  • It is crude or uneducated.  This argument dates back to 1066 in English, and while it may be true in some cases, it’s not universally true.
  • It’s not that creative.  Maybe, maybe not.  Is “Oh my stars and garters” really more creative than swearing?
  • It gives offense.  Certainly hate speech is offensive.  Some people can be offended by just about anything, even if it’s not directed at a person.  Swearing seems inherently more aggressive and pointed.  Is this the real sin–being too vociferous?
  • It belittles “sacred” things.  Some does and some doesn’t.  I have a hard time considering defecation sacred, even though it is a bodily function.

So, is all swearing wrong, or just when it is directed at others in anger?  Are there degrees of profanity that are acceptable?  If so, in what circumstances is swearing acceptable?  If not, why is it always unacceptable?  Do you have any non-swear words that you like to use as a substitute?

Comments 31

  1. Go rent “Johnny Dangerously” – if you can still find it anywhere. Mormons should use the scene in that movie as further inspiration to adjust, modify, and cut loose with a *light* blue streak.

  2. Napolean Dynamite did more to spread Mormon swearing . . . (I loved that movie, even though I can’t stand substitute swearing.)

    I posted on this topic a while ago on a different blog. Rather than excerpt sections, I might rework it into a separate post in a bit.

  3. For the most part, I think it is strictly cultural, i.e. the words by themselves mean nothing, they are just sounds. As much as things that are strictly cultural bother me, I play along because the alternative isn’t worth it. As for “bridling” one’s tongue, I think that refers to being in control, rather than specific words.

  4. I have been desensitized to obscenity and blasphemy due to my studies in linguistics. *ANY* word just seems like a widget or event to study, and no longer carries the emotional/cultural payload to me anymore. This concerns my orthodox Mormon family, since they believe that my not taking offense somehow indicates approval of swearing or blasphemous thoughts.

    In any case, ever since I learned about a stroke-induced aphasia which leaves social cueing/responses intact and includes massive-scale swearing production in non-swearers, my view of how “natural” swearing is has changed. It seems to me that there are neurological structures which serve the social function of language, rather than information transfer. Swearing in one mode or another is a natural neurological product of certain social conditions, and serves a function in social contexts.

    That being said, it may be part of the “natural man” we are told we need to put off.

  5. I think swearing has more to do with the use of linguistics in a particular community than anything else. Syntax and vocabulary help identify people to one another, both solidifying those that are “in” and excluding those who are “out”. Each community or culture decides for itself (not conscious decisions, except in the French Académie) what words, phrases, patterns of expression, etc. are appropriate and inappropriate. General trends for civilized communities tend toward putting taboos on language that intends to hurt, demean, or deride people or respected institutions (religious or otherwise).

    Something I’ve noticed: my sensitivity to swear words is much lower than my parents’ generation. I don’t wish to view a movie that makes frequent epithets to Deity or casual use of the f-bomb as a replacement for “um”, but twice yesterday I heard a swear word in media we brought into our home. My wife was showing me a movie trailer online and one of the characters used the word “-ss”. I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but then I realized that my two daughters, age 5, were standing around the computer watching the trailer with us. They certainly didn’t pick up on the “bad” word, and luckily they didn’t start using it, but that sort of thing would have never happened when I was a kid. Later, after the kids were in bed, my wife and I were watching Kevin Costner’s Open Range on AMC. When Robert Duvall’s character goes in to kill the bad guy at the end, he says something like “Take that you son of a –tch!” My wife and I both laughed. The language was cathartic, even if it was crude. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been as effective if Duvall had said “Take that you whippersnapper, you!” or even “Take that, you cur!” I’ve come to understand that judicious (not casual or unconscious) use of “bad” language in art has its place. Take that all you Orson Scott Card haters!

  6. “Any man who will not defend his wife and children is a coward and a bastard.”

    -Joseph Smith

    “I won’t go to Hell for swearing because I repent too damn fast.”

    -J. Golden Kimball

  7. “Mother Pus-Bucket!”, has been a favorite of mine for … has it really been almost 30 years?!

    “Frak” was effective at first because it was used in frequently on BSG. But now, the dialogue is peppered with it. I guess they’re just trying to “keep it real” being a pseudo-military drama. When I say it, it does raise my wife’s eyebrow, though.

    So, are the roots of the words on Carlin’s list of 7 (now 10) words you can’t say on TV Germanic?

  8. I think the worst swearing is the deity one, and I try to avoid it (although “G-dammit” is sometimes the worst thing that slips out if I suddenly spill something or break something or hurt myself). I sometimes use the F-word at work in a half-joking, half-mad way, but not every day and not ever in a sexual way. I use the S-word more routinely at work. And I use hell and damn at will, don’t really consider them swearing at all (partly due to my mission in Australia). I think I also say “freaking” a fair bit.

    I think it’s really easy to overdo swearing, just like it’s easy to overdo tattoos. But one little discreet, well-placed gem can make things more interesting. I think people, especially Mormons, give swear words more power than necessary just by being so sensitive about them.

  9. A guy I know stopped reading “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card because it had too much swearing in it. When I told him that was probably the most tame Card novel I’d read, he wanted to know if the author was one of those ex/anti-mormon types.

    Having grown up as the only mormon in my entire school division, being active in sports, and now working in an industry where swearing is both prevalent and accepted, I’ve also been very desensitized. I agree with SteveS (6.) that it really is just language of separation as long as it isn’t hurtfully targeting an individual. I find blasphemous cursing more offensive, becaue I actually believe the subjects of that blasphemy are real individuals with whom I have a relationship. I’d get upset if someone cursed using my wife as the subject matter too. BUT – I also have to recognize how standardized that use of language has become and try to recognize the intent of the curser. That tempers my reaction to it. That combined with the fact that I don’t cuss occasionally leads to a blasphemer apologizing to me after blurting. But it’s only VERY occasionally, if you get my meaning, and instances of apology decrease all the time.

    One of my friends got me using one of my now favorite substitutes. If I stubb my toe or smack my thumb with a hammer, I can often be heard yelling out, “BAD WORD!” 🙂

  10. Oh – and while attempting to get one of the AP’s on my mission to stop his blasphemous cussing, we introduced him to the phrase, “Got dandruff, some of it itches!”

    He liked it so much he started (substitute) swearing more than ever.

  11. I’ve been around it all my life. The background stuff like the Darren McGavin character in “A Christmas Story”. It’s not a bigger deal than anyone makes of it and I think there’s some evidence that being able to release stress by a satisfactory profane outburst is healthful. Believe me, I’ve been doing it inside my head since college as the need arises and it works for me.

    OTOH, sometimes when you hear something like “sugar honey ice tea” the intent is so unmistakable that the distinction is non-existent anyway and then you have to wonder if the careful substitutions simply come down to superstition of a sort.

  12. Gotta admit, I kind of like to swear sometimes. It is very situation-dependent though. In general, I try to avoid swearing around children, elderly people, pets, and bishops.

    What about, uh, so-called “dirty talk” during sex? Does that count? Yeah, cause John Dehlin wanted to know, but was too embarrassed to ask. 🙂

  13. I still love Q*Bert getting pissed off because a ball falls on his head. Cute scramlet symbols and a digitally distorted F-bomb diffuse the force of the short fuse.

    I enjoy cursing at opportune times in foreign languages. Nobody gets their ire up about bloody, crap, wanker, bollocks, take a ride, baka yarou and kuso! — among others. And, hey, it’s a little eccentric and punk. Fun to zig when others zag. And primitively power releasing like a soul screaming “hiiiiyaahhhh” as one places a judo chop to an enemy’s throat.

    Nothing creates forceful and impactful art like judicious and well-chosen expletives. Sometimes it is deeply satisfying to iconoclastically curse someone’s sacred cow by employing the pen as sword via well chosen vocabulary, satire, irony or allegory. Again, such serves the emotional release without getting folks too easily worked up. Plus, if it takes that much work to accomplish the goal of cursing, then you’re apt to offend just when it is really needed.

    And hey, Matt (13): what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom. 🙂

  14. “what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom.”

    There is a retort just begging to be made that would include other location possibilities, but I won’t go there. 🙂

  15. Exactly, Ray. 🙂 I’m both serious and tongue-in-cheek. Not knowing for certain when which is which is what separates art from agenda. I hope to strive more for the former.

  16. Bull Moose #8 – Couldn’t quickly find the add’l 3 George Carlin words, but of the 7 original, he specifically mentions that 2 of them have Anglo-Saxon origin (f and s respectively). He doesn’t attribute accordingly, but mf is a derivative of f, so yes, Anglo-Saxon. The remaining words, p ironically originated in Old French from the verb pissier. c (male) is germanic, and c (female) is speculated to be Old English, putting it in the germanic camp also. t is also Old English, so germanic.

    Matt 13 – LOL. That reminds me of the Seinfeld epi when his girlfriend wants him to talk dirty, and he can’t come up with anything so he asks if those are the panties her mother laid out for her. So, if you are any good at dirty talking and the wife is ok with it, let er rip. I have heard others say that sometimes the f word is the only word that really fits.

    Mostly I don’t like deity swearing or people swearing at other people in anger. But I have been known to fix someone with a stare, hands on hips and say, “I could roundhouse kick your head clean off your shoulders right now.”

  17. Hmmm… my philosophy on swearing has adjusted. I became much more liberal about it while on my mission actually (ironic, eh?). I think that it really isn’t a big deal. I avoid blasphemy, but–even though I don’t use it–I think that there are moments where nothing but “good Lord” can really suffice. I try to measure my language to match my company. If it makes someone uncomfortable, then I try to avoid it. On the other hand, the ridiculous canard about swearing revealing a small vocabulary or lack of creativity or intelligence is completely false. Some of my favorite writers and thinkers, who are by no means intellectually unendowed, can craft a blue streak of such overpowering brilliance that to hear it is to look into the face of God and hear him say, “You are my most wondrous creation.”

    Heh… reminds me of a John Gielgud story about not pausing while on stage… but I’ll not cause a scandal by repeating it.

  18. The “small vocabulary” thing doesn’t apply to everyone who swears, just the ones who seem incapable of doing anything else.

  19. After a childhood without swearing, I had to teach myself how to speak normally. Originally it was quite a deliberate process, but my vernacular is now suitably natural.

  20. I have to laugh hard at “frak”. I am a big time BSG fan and I was wondering if it was me or if more and more people were actually using it.

    Anyway, the way I was first taught about swearing was about not to use “my God” anytime I wanted to express my surprise or any other feeling because it is a sacred name that should be used with respect. Then I was taught about all those “bad” words and speaking a foreign language I eventually came to the realization of the thing you wrote in your post.

    Swear words are intended to hurt the person you are refering to. I don’t find “son of a…” nearly as induslting as would be the question: “Are you upset and being unpleasant to me because the recolection of how sad you were as a little boy when your momy would pace the sidewalk and not tuck you to bed in order to bring home the money all her boyfriends gave her?” I have not used a single “swear” word here and yet…. Why? Because in the first example they are only words. In the second example I took the time to be creative because I meant it. I meant to hurt. This is to me what swear words are about: hurting the deepest as possible.
    Therefore I don’t hear “swear words” I hear sounds that dono’t mean much to me unless there is a will behind it.
    Yet I work in a high school and a student once told me something that made me feel like correcting myself about one specific swear word.
    In French we use a swear word for prostitute as you would use the four letter word. And I confess that I over use it anytime I am frustrated by the smallest thing.
    Once I could not open the office door and getting frustrated I said this word. The girl then said to me: “there are no prostitutes. Only working women”. Then I really felt bad. I am not the one who should judge who they are and what are the choices they made (if they even made that choice). Refering to them in a negative/angry context because in one way I want to hurt/insult what is being my obstacle is just aweful. Not because it is a swear word but because this women deserve respect and often they need love and not me belittling them by using their state/lifestyle to make me feel better.
    So to me there are only words that people don’t want to hear and I can make an effort for them when I am around them and do my thing the way I want when I am not. But for this last word I talked about I want to make an effort just out of respect for these ladies and eventually out of respect for myself because to me this is totally a swear word.
    I guess I don’t consider swear words what most people do but for this one.

  21. I hang out in a couple of places online where creative use of the f-word garners admiration. We give grades based on how well someone swears in a post.

    I admit this spills over into real life. Funny, I cussed a LOT before I joined the church, and then pretty much stopped completely, and now that I’m a DAMU denizen I cuss again.

    Here’s the thing…there was a difference in the content of my mind and heart when I didn’t swear. The swearing didn’t corrupt me…but I think it’s evidence of corruption.

  22. Got Down Sat on a Bench! Was very popular at Ricks. I have been told to stop saying things like “Crap” and “Suck” often by some of my good clean-speaking friends. My father was a good swearer, and I have vowed to never let my kids hear me swear. My oldest is 6 and so far, so good. I think it shows respect and simple obedience to refrain from those words, even if we don’t know why.

  23. “Matt (13): what happens in the bedroom stays in the bedroom”
    i dont remember reading that in the gospel of matthew (JOKE LOL)

    ok imho substitute swearing is pointless you may as well swear
    i mean hearing stuff like flip and fetch may seem harmless but its the intent thats there
    hearing sugar honey ice tea or even worse see you next tuesday is worse still because the intent is more obvious

    #12 notation to christmas story thank you i havent thought about that film in YEARS

    i am not a total saint when it comes to swearing, i am a convert and found that to be one thing i found so difficult to overcome – i was brought up as an army brat so I was brought up with casual swearing

    I am english so “arse” is used instead of “ass” so here to call someone an ass is not swearing
    an ass is a donkey
    an arse however not such a kind comment

    If my memory is correct there is some parody of the use of substitute swearing but can not remember the details.

  24. I feel so lame reading this knowing that I am a huge substitute swearer. I spit out the “fudge!” 24/7, and I picked up “Oh mother” from my grandma.

    And not gonna lie, I’ve typed “omgsh” before.


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