Modern-Day Swearing: Will Our Bastardized Words Damn Us to Hell?

Rayapostasy, Bible, christianity, Culture, Discrimination, historicity, LDS, Mormon, spirituality 37 Comments

I believe we need to take responsibility for understanding and choosing what we say and do – not allowing others to make those decisions for us.  With that in mind, I am addressing the “what”, “why” and “so what” of “swearing and cursing”.

The best Biblical statements regarding swearing and cursing include the following:

“Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name.” (Deut. 6:13)

“But I say unto you, Swear not at all;” (Matthew 5:34)

“And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.” (Exodus 21:17)

“His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under his tongue is mischief and vanity.” (Psalms 10:7)

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.” (James 3:9)

There are dozens of other references to swearing and cursing, and all of them deal with swearing as a way of making a solemn promise (including taking the Lord’s name in vain) and cursing as pronouncing punishment. I chose the verses quoted above because they provide an interesting insight into the way that the original, scriptural meaning of these words has mutated radically since the initial pronouncements – coming to mean something now that simply was not included or intended in the scriptural admonitions.

It is interesting that neither term (”swear” or “curse”) is defined in the Bible Dictionary. I take this as a sign that those who compiled this resource didn’t feel it was necessary to do so – that the scriptural usage was so consistent and obvious that no further commentary was necessary. Given that situation, the following definitions come straight from the dictionary:

“to swear” = “to bind oneself by oath.” (There are 10 definitions; 9 fit this general meaning.)

“to swear” = “to use profane oaths or language” (This is the only exception to the general rule.

“to curse” = “to express a wish that misfortune, evil, doom, etc., befall a person, group, etc. – to invoke a formula or charm intended to cause such misfortune to another.” (again, the majority of definitions)

“to curse” = “to use a profane oath or curse word; to swear at” (one definition)

It is interesting and instructive to note that the second definitions (profane language and profane oaths) do NOT appear in our scriptures. Every instance of “swearing” and “cursing” throughout our canon involves the first definitions. What does this mean?

First, it is apparent that “swearing” means making a solemn oath or promise. (”I swear it shall be done.” – EVERY post can be improved by adding a quote from TPB.) In the OT, as a token of their status as The Chosen People, Israel was allowed (even encouraged) to make these sacred promises in the name of God – to swear by His name. However, one of the aspects of the Law of Moses that was fulfilled by Jesus was this practice. In its place, Jesus commanded to “swear not at all”.

Obviously, He did not command that we stop making solemn promises, since His new admonition was the following:

“But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:37)

By ending the Old Testament practice of swearing by God, and by shifting the responsibility to us – as individuals – to restrict our promises to “Yea, yea; Nay, nay”, He put the responsibility for keeping those promises squarely on us – as individuals. There no longer was the excuse that, “God just didn’t do it;” it was replaced by the only possible statement, “I just didn’t do it.” I see this move as one more example of the move from institutional responsibility to personal responsibility. Jesus said, essentially, “It’s up to you, so don’t even imply that it was someone else’s decision or is someone else’s responsibility.”

So, how did we get from the original pronouncements of Jesus – the great societal paradigm shift – to where we are now?

The Puritan and Victorian societies of the past few hundred years simply took this basic shift and rejected it – returning to the old Law of Moses mentality and expanding the meaning of “swear” and “curse” even beyond where it had been anciently. Just as the ancient Jewish leaders expanded the original commandments by adding many prohibitions not included in the original law (“hedging about the law”), modern Christians added layers of meaning to these ancient prohibitions and turned them into restrictions they never were intended to be.

Now, in our society, people have returned to “swearing by some sacred being or object”, but they also have created a completely new definition / category of swearing. Now, it includes “using unacceptable words” – words defined by the educated elite to distinguish those who are cultured and those who are not. They have changed the original meaning from “making promises for God” to “saying words that show you are more ignorant than us“. That is a radical and divisive change, and it is mentioned repeatedly by LDS members and those elsewhere all the time.

These same people have taken “cursing” from a statement of malicious intent and desire to cause harm to the same generic “saying bad words” – also a radical and prideful change.  Also, the following is important:

“Profane” means “characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious”. That is the key issue, imo – that our society has confused and conflated “vulgar” with “profane”. There are lots of words that have no religious meaning or connotation whatsoever – that are not “profane” in any way, shape or form – that, nonetheless, have come to be seen as “profane” (as somehow irreligious and offensive to God).

***For those of you who do not want to read specific examples, stop reading now and go straight to the comments.***

***I mean it. The rest of this post includes some words that some might find offensive. I do not use any of the examples that I think would cause the most severe reaction, but I spell out completely those I do use.***

Here are just a few examples, using the most tame words I feel comfortable using here:

“Hell” is a proper noun that designates a location and/or condition. It is used in our scriptures hundreds of times, at least. It is sung in our hymns of worship. When used as a proper noun (”come hell or high water”), and not within a true curse (“Go to Hell.”) or meaningless addition (“Oh, hell!”), there is absolutely nothing bad or wrong with the word itself. Yet, “hell” is forbidden by many people as a “swear word”.


“Damn” is a noun meaning “something of little value”. A good example of this is, “That isn’t worth a damn,” – meaning it is worthless. On the other hand, “to damn” means to enact a curse – to cause someone to become of no worth, figuratively casting someone to Hell (the place where they are of no worth). Therefore, “Damn you,” is exactly what is forbidden in scriptures, for two reasons:

1) It incorrectly places the one who “curses” another in the place of God, the only one who can be the Judge and validly make such a pronouncement; and
2) it invokes that status in opposition to Jesus’ command to “swear not at all” – since invoking such a curse is, in effect, stating one’s authority to “promise in the name of God” that it will happen.

However, to use the word “damn” (even as a verb) is not proscribed in our canonized scriuptures – as in, “God damns those who fight him,” or “I don’t want my efforts at work to be damned.”

There are some examples that never were part of religion, but only came to be seen that way as a result of the elitist division I mentioned earlier. “Bastard” simply means child born out of wedlock, so “bastardize” meant to make illegitimate or corrupt. “Bitch” means female dog – no worse or better in its original meaning than “ewe” or “doe” (or ram or steed) or any other name for an animal. It was the application of the word to “those who act like a female dog” (originally “bitching and whining”) that pushed it into the category of unacceptable “swear words”.  “Shit” simply means “feces” – and, in its extended meaning, anything else that is disgusting and/or worthless.  It was the fact that such words were employed almost exclusively by the uneducated, unwashed masses as “gutter terms” that led to their classification as unacceptable words. Rich, educated, elite people found other ways of saying the same thing in an acceptable manner. (That is an incredibly important point, but it is not understood by the vast majority of people when considering “swear words”.)

IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE AND SUMMARY: Please understand, I do not advocate “swearing and cursing” IN UNCONTROLLED, PUBLIC VENUES as they are defined in our day and age. I try to avoid placing intentional offense in front of people, even when I feel that such offense is misguided and somewhat immature. (Hence, my warning within this post about the words I spell out fully.) I teach my children that “swearing and cursing”, as defined in our modern times, are not violations of religious command but, rather, violations of societal expectations – but I also advise them to follow that expectation. In this case, not putting a stumblingblock in front of others is more important than doing something just because it’s not wrong. It is a personal sacrifice for the overall harmony of the community, exactly as someone who doesn’t feel it is necessary to cover up while breastfeeding might still do so in order to honor the general sensibilities of their community. I teach my children that the proper definition of “swearing” and using “curse words” in our time should be “using certain words out of original meaning as expletives (or words with no inherent meaning as used in the new context).” In this context, it is perfectly acceptable to use an alternate term for manure, as long as you are referring to manure (“Don’t step in the horse shit.”), but not within an  expression like, “Oh, shit!”  That is my personal decision; your mileage may vary.

I just wish people would stop telling other people they will be damned to Hell for swearing and cursing according to our bastardized interpretations. That simply isn’t scriptural. Remember, it is God Himself and His prophets who use the words “damn” and “hell” in our scriptures exponentially more than anyone else.

Discuss the following:

What is the difference between a one syllable word and a five syllable word if they mean exactly the same thing? Why is “excrement” or “feces” more acceptable than “shit”?  Why is one forbidden and one allowed?  Why is “frak” any better than the alternative?  Why is “heck” any better than “hell”?  Are peculiarly Mormon substitutes any different than the move by elitist Victorian prudes to discriminate against the unwashed masses in speech?

IMPORTANT EDITING NOTE:  Please avoid using certain words that will be considered socially taboo on even a more liberal Mormon blog like this one. This post is NOT tacit permission to pretend this is a George Carlin monologue.  Please limit specific words to those listed in the post, as specific words are not the focus on this post. There is plenty of ammo in the post; no more is required or desired.

Comments 37

  1. Fetch, Ray, you have a point! Nevertheless, in my own experience, the use of or exposure to vulgarities is not conducive to the spirit. I am willing to consider that this is just a matter of socialization, but I think it is more than that. Coarse words are generally understood to have coarse meanings. Euphemistic expressions or alternate words distance themselves (and us) from those more vulgar meanings and are, consequently, not as potent or offensive. Because the stronger words call more forcefully to mind the more vulgar meanings, they are more offensive to the spirit, let alone to those with whom we associate.

  2. I respectfully disagree with you. Strong vulgar language is like a verbal slap in the face. When you use milder versions of strong language, it’s an improvement because the slap is milder. Like being bopped with a pillow instead of a broomstick. Using none of the above, saying simply “yes” or “no”, rather than something like “H… y… m…f…! D… straight!” is the best approach at all, because it’s the most gentle. That’s how I read the NT admonition.

    I don’t consider cursing to be any sort of huge sin, but it’s indeed better not to curse.

  3. Shit

    Scholars trace the word back to Old Norse origin (skīta, to defecate), and it is virtually certain that it was used in some form by preliterate Germanic tribes at the time of the Roman Empire. It was originally adopted into Old English as the nouns scite (dung, attested only in place names) and scitte (diarrhoea), and the verb scītan (to defecate, attested only in bescītan, to cover with excrement); eventually it morphed into Middle English schītte (excrement), schyt (diarrhoea) and shiten (to defecate).

    From what I understand temple going Southern Mormon Farmers , still use the word Shit when they are talking about Horse Shit it means nothing to them except dung.

  4. Swearing doesn’t bother me like it use to unless it has energy and anger behind it than it can turn to arguments fighting and worse!!!

  5. I was teaching the 16-year-olds in Sunday School once, and we came to the part where Peter denies Christ. He does so with an oath, and then he begins to “curse and swear.” One of the kids asked me in a rather shocked voice if that meant Peter wasn’t just denying Christ but was using bad language to do it. I said actually probably not, because in the Bible when it talks about “swearing” or “cursing,” it means it literally, IOW it’s referring to things like “I swear on my mother’s grave” or “May God darn you to heck,” not “f-words” and “s-words” and “c-words” and so on. At which point, the kid looked at me like I was crazy.

  6. Post

    the use of or exposure to vulgarities is not conducive to the spirit.

    Unless, as James mentions, the words themselves are not considered coarse or vulgar in the culture in which they are used. I was raised in rural, central Utah – in farm and dairy country. I heard most of the words in this post growing up from the lips of VERY good, spiritual, temple recommend holding church leaders – in the context of their actual meanings. No sensibilities were jarred, since no sensibiliteis were attached culturally to the words. They simply were words. Used out of context as expletives – now that was different, as I said in what I teach my children.

    Tatiana, if you re-read what I wrote at the end, I agree that it is crass and culturally wrong to say, “H… y… m…f…! D… straight!” I would never say that, and I teach my kids not to say that. However, from a religious perspective, I don’t like calling it “swearing” or “cursing” – since it doesn’t match the biblical definitions. I call it being vulgar – meaning, at the most basic level, “not culturally refined”.

    Again, I see a HUGE difference between using these words in their proper linguistic context, exactly as they would be used in the Bible, and using them indiscriminately and/or habitually as expletives.

    kuri, my kids still roll their eyes a bit. It’s sad to me that so many people read the account of Peter and assume “he was using bad words”. That is a classic example of what “bastardized” means in its pure form.

  7. I recall hearing that Hebrew did not have any obscenities in their language. That is hard for me to imagine, but that is what I heard. This person also told me that it was the Romans who really developed the art of obscenities. I can’t document this however.

  8. As I understand it, the source of ‘damn’ is that the original phrase was ‘not worth a tinker’s dam’. This was the mound of clay that was put around a flaw in order to control where the solder went, but which was then worthless. The eventual shift from dam to damn then took place. Maybe someone should check the Oxford English Dictionary or something on that.

    In any case, I feel it’s not the words that matter, but the emotion associated with them. Raca, thou fool!

  9. Ray, this is awesome.

    As I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle books a couple of years ago, I found that I wasn’t bothered by terms the characters almost universally used for excrement and urine. I recognized that to the characters they were simple descriptive terms, which you’ve ably discussed here. As my thoughts never quite germinated, I loved reading your post. Thank you!

  10. It’s all about societal expectations, really. Linguistics are a funny thing, and I’d read the commandments as an admonition not to incite others to anger nor to make oaths that one knows cannot be fulfilled (and being human, all our oaths are doomed to weakness!). So swearing is a bastardization of covenant making while cursing is a bastardization (quite likely) of a priesthood ordinance (I’ll leave it to the reader to discern what that may be!).

    Thus these things are corruptions of the holiness that infuses God’s order–and ought not to be. A curse is when we wish malfortune upon others, not when we stub our toe and yell vulgarities (though we may wish ill-fortune upon the object that has inflicted upon us such pain!).

    Profanity, on the other hand, is something else. It is mere noise, imbued with meaning and offensiveness merely by acculturation. The not quite sibilance of the ‘f’, followed by a schwa sound and a harsh clicking noise is considered extremely offensive, especially to those of us who have taken vows of chastity as it degrades what should be a highly intimate and sacred experience to the very lowness of a mere profanity. It is the sort of word that makes most people cringe the first time their hear it after they realize what it means. That aside though, it is just noise, and will we be accursed for uttering that sequence of noise? I hardly think so! After all in some languages it is not vulgar, and means something very different. Just as the first time I told some of my Portuguese-speaking friends the English word for a round metal object used for currency (coin) they thought I meant something VERY different (the English vulgarity equivalent also starts with a c and has four letters–and is definitely one of the more vulgar words we have in our language (for some reason)). Again, it’s just noise, but context and culture imbue that noise with meaning and perhaps offensiveness.

    I personally choose to not take offense at most anything that I hear, but I also do not utter such things as I do not know who will be offended or confused by my utterances. As for the so-called ‘softer’ words (fetch, crap, dang, etc), I have been trying to purge that from my speech as well–after all, if I don’t need one, why do I need the other? I’ve got a fairly extensive vocabulary of words with real meaning–a word like ‘dang’ has no meaning other than emphasis, but it is so non-specific as to render the conversation LESS intelligible than it would be without such words. Therefore I don’t see the need for such words and avoid them. Waste of breath.

  11. Ray,

    I get the point and largely agree with it, but I do think some of your observations may be too nuanced for the “Mormon masses.” (I don’t use “Mormon Masses” in an elitist way — I’m a rank and file member.) In many ways, I think the scriptural definitions are probably not so relevant to a discussion of cussing, as cursing is primarily a question of cultural norms. Certain words didn’t offend you in your upbringing because that was the cultural norm where you grew up. But there’s a lot more behind vulgarity than the epistemology of scriptural or cultural origins.

    HBO and Showtime series throw the F-word around liberally largely to communicate the message “we’re edgy, we’re keeping it real” and/or “you won’t find content like this on those white bread networks.” When the kids on my son’s middle school bus swear (against school rules), it’s not just their upbringing, it’s a declaration of rebellion, an expression of superiority.

    I know people who use the F-word regularly in conversation in certain contexts. It’s not because the language no longer sounds vulgar at all to their ears, it’s precisely because they it does that they use it. But they never would talk like that around me (they self-censor – I’ve never had to ask them to stop) or in general public because they know that in the broader context, it isn’t polite. When they’re using “swear words” or using off-color language among themselves, it’s kind of a bonding language, kind of a “I trust you to see the real me” invitation to a more intimate friendship.

    Using clean language sets us apart in a good way, much like the WoW and premarital sex restrictions. The fact that I never use course language or tell dirty stories means I don’t hear much of that either, which I like; the challenge is, I’m in some ways this excludes from the “your one of us” bonding moments common among other men. I like the respectful way I’m treated by my peers, but I have to consciously work on other ways to create at most “PG-rated” bonding moments among my male co-workers using cleaning forms of teasing and humor.

    At any rate, I think church members should know and recognize cultural language norms and live them in the most non-prudish, upright manner possible — that’s part of being a disciple of Christ. The scriptural and cultural definitions of “cursing” and “swearing” are just a side show for me.

  12. Gotta remember to edit before hitting “send.” There’s hardly a sentence above that’s grammatically correct. Oh well, you get the picture.

  13. Ray:

    I appreciate the approach to a degree(as JS said, he prefers a man who swears a stream as long as his arm but deals justly to the long, smooth-faced hypocrite).

    That said, merely b/c rich people used ‘more refined’ words doesn’t mean refinement is an illegitimate idea. Indeed, taking this tack betrays what I’ve seen happen in social/labor history–we take anything by rich folks to be something meant entirely for money and therefore, irrelevant to us “ordinary folks.” When we view all elements of our culture (such as swearing) through the lens of class, we end up delegitimizing any attempt at upward mobility–not just economically but also culturally. Indeed, we delegitimize the very idea that there is an upward.

    This talk by Doug Callister is important on this point (though I don’t agree with every jot/tittle, I think the general thrust is spot-on): “Your Refined Heavenly Home”

  14. Funny story. I grew up not swearing at all.

    I grew up in a Mormon home in a tiny Kentucky town, and I was one of the very few Mormons. I just didn’t swear because that was a part of our religion. We don’t drink, we don’t smoke, we don’t swear.

    The guys at middle school would tease me and say, “Hey Arthur, say ____. Just say it!” It was like a Seminary video.

    Then I went to BYU-Idaho and I heard people there swearing all the time. I was like, “Seriously? We can do that? What else can we do that I’ve been missing out on my whole life? Can we smoke pot or something?”

    The end.

  15. Thanks for getting the discussion going, Ray.

    I’m not quite sure where I fall here. I use pretty clean language, and I want my children to do the same. But hearing profanity and vulgarity don’t offend me much when it is just use of language. When it’s graphic and descriptive, I get uncomfortable. The words themselves don’t bother me, and I don’t know if it’s because I have “transcended” worrying about them or just that I’ve had so much exposure to it that I don’t make many judgements based on a person’s choice of words.

    I do think that profanity/vulgarity is much more of a social stratification tool than an issue of absolute right and wrong. Sure, it’s better to be polite and use “clean” language for lots of reasons, so we’re encouraged by leaders to do so. The problem is that once a leader offers encouragement in a certain area, it suddenly becomes a serious issue of sin vs. righteousness.

    If I can take a stab at a REALLY liberal paraphrasing of your post, Ray, I’d say:

    We’ve changed or misunderstood the meaning of swearing. Clean language is nice, and I try to use it, but the general use of or hearing of “swear” words really isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. While still of social significance, we’ve attached religious significance where it may not belong.

    (How’d I do?)

  16. “I recall hearing that Hebrew did not have any obscenities in their language. That is hard for me to imagine, but that is what I heard. This person also told me that it was the Romans who really developed the art of obscenities. I can’t document this however.” Perhaps this is because the Hebrews (when they spoke Hebrew as more than a ceremonial language) were insular. They did not conquer others. Romans, OTOH, were out to rule the world. When you conque another tribe, your language and customs are the “elite” whereas the customs and language of the vanquished are considered vulgar, rude & coarse.

    This is also true in English where the Norman conquest led to a reverence for all things French (hence, “fornication” and “defecation” are preferred to their Germanic counterparts). Even though the debasement of the Anglo-Saxons was hundreds of years ago, those who want to appear “edgy” or “real” can still root for the underdog by using their words instead of the now clinical-sounding French variations.

  17. In Brazil, I was surprised to hear one of the most common expressions used to convey disgust or surprise was “Nosso Senhora dos Ceus” ( Our Heavenly Mother, a reference to Mary). The Brazilian culture, heavily Catholic, reverences Mary and yet that is the expression they use as “J.C.” is used in our culture.

    It seems innately human to somehow twist what we are taught to revere and make something else out of it. On my mission it was one of the times that I thought Satan might actually exist…..

  18. Arthur #14: awesome story.

    File under “interesting swear words”: in Quebec, one of the worst curses one can utter is “tabernacle”. No joke. It makes talking about that prominent LDS choir in SLC pretty interesting. 🙂

  19. Catching up. Interesting comments. Here goes:

    Everyone, Just for full disclosure, I’ve mentioned repeatedly that I am a passionate parser. I also am a bit of an English Nazi. My kids think I’m obsessive, actually.

    rk, I use both the words “obscene” and “vulgar” to describe many of the words that I might have used in this post. There is a big difference between those words, and I am disturbed much more by the obscene (indecent; depraved: abominable; disgusting; repulsive) than the vulgar (“common; low; coarse”). Both are defined socially, and both have a bit of an elitist tint, but the latter (vulgarities) includes much of what I described in the post (elite people looking down their noses at the common, uneducated person). The former (obscenities) tend to be offensive to many people who aren’t offended by common vulgarities.

    Neal, “Raca, thou fool” is a wonderful example of how almost anything can be inappropriate with the proper inflection and emotion – which, I believe, bolsters my main point. A totally “refined” person can put every bit as much venom and condemnation into a sophisticated and erudite expression with a scornful look as a poor peasant can by saying something the other would consider vulgar. Why do we accept one and condemn the other.

    Ben, I have little problem with books that include most of what I’ve included in this post – as long as it’s not omnipresent and/or gratuitous. That still bugs me.

    Benjamin, “Therefore I don’t see the need for such words and avoid them. Waste of breath.” That pretty much sums up why I don’t “swear”. It’s also why I don’t drink coffee or alcohol, aside from the religious aspect. I don’t see the need. Waste of money and time.

    Lorin, “I think church members should know and recognize cultural language norms and live them in the most non-prudish, upright manner possible — that’s part of being a disciple of Christ.” AMEN! That really is one of my main points – that blanket condemnation of other social norms (like that of my dairy country upbringing) that are not religious in nature is different than respecting differing cultures and participating in non-damnable aspects of them.

  20. Russell, I agree that “refinement” is important. I just don’t like it when “refinement” becomes code for “judgmental snobbery” – and differentiating between the acceptable people and the unacceptable people based on the length and sophistication of the words they use crosses my line.

    Arthur, thanks. That really is funny.

    jjackson, “The problem is that once a leader offers encouragement in a certain area, it suddenly becomes a serious issue of sin vs. righteousness.” and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the central issue in a nutshell. The idea that someone who uses the type of words I discussed in this post, in the way that I described using them in this post, somehow is less righteous than those who don’t . . . I have a hard time explaining how wrong that is to me.

    Excellent summary of my post, btw. I just had to sound more elitist and use more words than that. *grin*

    Hawkgrrrl, excellent point about reverencing French words over German ones. That kind of highlights my questions: Why is “fornicate” inherently better than its more vulgar counterparts? Answer: because one sounds more high-class and educated than the others – even thought they mean the exact same thing.

  21. Post

    Holden, I thought of discussing profanities separately in the post, and I should have done so. Thanks for mentioning them, since that really is the central problem I have with how “swearing” and “cursing” have been distorted over the centuries.

    “Profane” means “characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious”. That is the key issue, imo – that our society has confused and conflated “vulgar” with “profane”. There are lots of words that have NO religious meaning or connotation whatsoever – that are not “profane” in any way, shape or form – that, nonetheless, have come to be seen as “profane” (as somehow irreligious and offensive to God).

    I’m going to edit the post to include that paragraph.

  22. Post

    Lhandroval, Nice!

    SteveS, thanks for sharing that. I had not heard it, but it’s a fascinating example of interesting cross-cultural language problems.

    Whew! Headed out to a daughter’s concert. Will check back in tonight.

  23. I agree that it’s not a huge deal, and definitely not when used as a plain word to describe what it means, rather than as a colorful intensifier. Still, something tells me it definitely matters what language we use. Not that it matters more than straight dealing, honesty, kindness, service, or other Christlike qualities, but, like the Word of Wisdom which is also sometimes called irrelevant or unimportant, it still matters. It sets the tone, aligns us toward the positive, reminds us of who we are.

    I guess it’s true that I’m an elitist in one sense. I don’t believe money makes a person a better person, or social position, a refined accent, illustrious ancestors, a fancy neighborhood or trendy clothes. What does matter, though, is how a person acts. Acting well is available to everyone no matter their income or social standing. I agree that the most important parts of acting well are honesty, love, service, etc. but one minor part of acting well is not offending those around you with rough crass or foul language. Does that mean that someone who uses vulgar terms appropriately in context is less righteous? Of course not, but would it better still for them to speak mildly? I do think so.

    Just as education doesn’t put you above someone who is uneducated, yet it’s still a good thing to be educated, there’s no need for arrogance or horror at someone’s use of words (and there I totally agree with you), but it is still a better idea to speak more gently.

  24. Touche, Ray.

    As far as “fornicate” goes, it’s not because it sounds necessarily fancier. But, in the hidden hand of arbitrariness that is linguistic culture, “fornicate” is a techincal term whereas others are not.

    For me, abstinence from swearing is simply another matter of “tactical morality” where we keep ourselves separate from certain connotations. It matters not that fornicate has the same meaning as other words. The reality is that the connotations are different. And even if those connotations have been wrongly ascribed, we still want to avoid them in order to lubricate the social process.

  25. I agree that using vulgarities and obscenities is not “swearig” or “cursing.” I agree that there are many more serious sins, including taking the Lord’s name in vain. I do not agree that “fornicate” and its Saxon alternative “mean” the same thing; among other things, their connotative meanings have become very different. That is a good example of why I think vulgarities and obscenities are offensive, socially and spiritually. Perhaps not sinful, but offensive. I think maybe I am in agreement with Ray, except that I think vugarity/obscenity can offend the spirit which, if not sinful, is certainly not desireable.

  26. #5: Kuri, do you have a source for claiming that Peter wasn’t using “bad” language? My own understanding was that he was very much using “bad” words, not “Well, gosh, I’m sure not any darn guy hanging out with that there Jesus. Heck! Shut the front door or I’ll kick your trash!”

    Anyone who says that a given language contains no obscenities is just mincing words. That is often said about Japanese, in part because it has a reputation as a polite language, and in part because its most famous insult (now diffusing throughout other cultures via anime) is “baka”, which is generally translated as “fool” or “stupid.” Couple of problems:

    1. If you ever hear a really angry Japanese person use it in context, or to modify another word, it becomes clear that “foolish” is fairly tame translation.
    2. Along with other coarse words in Japanese, they can be used in public contexts without being obscene–they’re not polite, but they also don’t carry the same taboo that English four-letter words carry.
    3. I can assure you that there are descriptions of the human anatomy in Japanese that make our English words seem like Primary songs in comparison. I assume something similar was true of ancient Hebrew, but for some reason those words didn’t make it into the Tanakh/Old Testament. Can’t imagine why…

  27. Forbidden words generally fall into three categories: profanity (incorrect use of religious names/terms – large vocabulary of these in traditional Catholic cultures), crude terms for body parts, and crude terms for bodily functions.

    On a slightly different tack, use “niggardly” in polite discourse. There are some words that can be offensive just because they seem offensive.

  28. Maybe the real sin of swearing is not tripping up others’ social sensibilities, but the sin of pride. Those who want to appear “edgy” use the so-called swear words (or those who are expressing anger or frustration). Those who want to appear erudite and superior use the flower French versions.

  29. Tatiana, I agree in principle with most of what you wrote. Re-read, if necessary my “IMPORTANT AUTHOR’S NOTE AND SUMMARY” paragraph. It says much the same thing that you said. My only disagreement is that the words themselves are inherently offensive – that other words are more “mild” than the ones we call “vulgar”. That is largely cultural / societal, as in the case of the farmers and dairymen who weren’t offended in the least by the terms I used in this post. I still don’t use them in open discourse, or at church, or on my job, or anywhere else where there is the possibility of offense – but I don’t believe they are offensive **in and of themselves** in a vacuum.

    Russell, “tactical morality” is exactly why I don’t “swear” outside of discussions like this – and “the hidden hand of arbitrariness that is linguistic culture” is nice phrasing.

    Martin, you said, “I think vugarity/obscenity can offend the spirit which, if not sinful, is certainly not desireable.” I agree they “CAN” offend the spirituality of individuals and communities, and I agree that certain words probably do offend “the Spirit” (are offensive to God), but I think much of that depends far more on tone and intent and situational usage than on the words themselves. There are a few words that are so offensive that I would never say them no matter what (except in an academic discussion of vulgarities, similar to this discussion but in a very controlled environment – and at least one that I would refuse to say strictly on personal principle), but they are very, very rare.

    Bro. Jones’ description of Japanese is spot-on. They can insult with the best of us, if they choose to do so. Also, any language with built-in social identifiers (different words completely to denote personal importance and inter-personal relationships) **could** be viewed as offensive to people raised in cultures that are or seem more egalitarian.

    Micah, Thanks for the example of “niggardly”. There was a professor at NYU who was fired for using that word – even though he used it in its pure definition perfectly in context. It is a GREAT example of how a word can be seen as offensive, simply because of the “sensibilities” of those who hear it. I NEVER use that word outside this type of discussion, simply because I am aware of how it SOUNDS – and that not everyone understands its actual meaning.

    hawkgrrrl, amen. If words are used explicitly to elevate someone above another, I believe that is FAR more serious than someone being “unintentionally coarse” in their language. Notice that “coarse” is a word that people who are NOT “coarse” use to describe others below them. That’s worth considering all by itself.

  30. “#5: Kuri, do you have a source for claiming that Peter wasn’t using “bad” language?”

    Ray’s post. 😉

    “My own understanding was that he was very much using “bad” words, not “Well, gosh, I’m sure not any darn guy hanging out with that there Jesus. Heck! Shut the front door or I’ll kick your trash!””

    My understanding is that he would have been saying something like, “I swear by Heaven that I don’t know the man! May God damn me if I do!” (I don’t know what specific oaths he would have used, but I think that’s the general idea.) It’s actually a bit worse than just using “naughty” words, IMO.

    “Anyone who says that a given language contains no obscenities is just mincing words. That is often said about Japanese, in part because it has a reputation as a polite language, and in part because its most famous insult (now diffusing throughout other cultures via anime) is “baka”, which is generally translated as “fool” or “stupid.””

    Yeah, if you get in a fist fight with a Japanese guy, the last thing you’d yell at him before you hit him is “Kono yarou!” But translating that as “This guy!” is silly. In context, you have to go with “You SOB!” or “MF!” But I think it is fair to say that English insults are more colorful. 😉

    “2. Along with other coarse words in Japanese, they can be used in public contexts without being obscene–they’re not polite, but they also don’t carry the same taboo that English four-letter words carry.”

    For example, I read that one of the rules for TV is that you can say “Chikusho!” but you can’t call someone “Kono chikusho!” IOW, you can say “Oh, dirty beast!” (like we might say, “Oh, s—!”) but you can’t say “You dirty beast!” (like we might say “You little s—!”). The word itself isn’t taboo.

    “3. I can assure you that there are descriptions of the human anatomy in Japanese that make our English words seem like Primary songs in comparison.”

    I don’t think they have any that are obscene in the way the “c-word” is in American English, though. “Omanko” seems much closer to “pussy” than to “c—-” in its connotations, and the various words starting with “chin” are roughly equivalent to “dick.” Not fit for polite company, and usually bleeped out on TV, but not obscene, IMO.

  31. Personally, I’m rooting for “fornicate” to take the place of its cousin in common expressions. People can call each other “motherfornicators” and will pepper their talk with “fornicating” used as an adjective. “I went to the fornicating store, but they didn’t have any fornicating milk, so I told the guy behind the counter, ‘Fornicate you!'”

    (Not exactly the same meaning I know–I agree with Martin Willey. But close enough to be funny because it reveals the arbitrariness of it all that Ray brought up.)

  32. In Hmong, the two doozies:

    “Face” (ntsej muag)
    “Tiger bite” (tsov tom)

    While they can be “normal” words in context, if used in anger or with *any* degree of unkindness…phew…

    Before I knew the implications of the word “face” and when I was still trying to understand the “don’ts”, I once asked a respected Hmong man in front of a bunch of people if the words “rotten face” was something bad.

    They nodded quietly.

  33. i believe it is important for us to take consideration of the context that the “curse” or “swear” word in question is given. in many cases words are just words, and one thing that is unnecessary to get hung up on when there are a lot more important matters to be worried about. getting nitpicky about things that don’t really matter can be a member of the church’s biggest problem, ie caffeinated soda, piercings, hair styles, etc. it can also be some of the biggest reasons that people leave the church. things like this seem less “doctrinal” and more “cultural”. the church has important doctrine, and cultish culture.

  34. Post

    Ziff, thanks for the laugh.

    Russell, I love those types of stories. I served in Japan, and the stories of missionaries mistakenly talking about enemas are legion. (not directly related to the post, but . . .)

    KT, The Church has wonderful culture and lousy culture, depending largely on the individual people involved.

  35. Pingback: Nacle Notebook 2009: Funny comments | Zelophehad’s Daughters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *