Warning: this post about swearing contains swear words spelled out in full, for the sake of overseas readers who may not know which words we are talking about if I only give a few letters. Children under 18— or under 21— or under 27 from Obama-supporting families— ought to either not read this, or get your mom’s permission before you read on….
Swearing. There was a time when all published authors had the same rule for their fiction— no swearing. None. What. So. Ever. Authors didn’t use any words that wouldn’t be welcome in folks’ parlors.
Then the language allowed in published books became more ‘realistic’, which led to ‘realistic’ swearing in films, then on television. After being exposed to that for a few years, folks that once used barnyard language only in the barnyard began using it in the parlor — in front of children, their grandmother, and visiting pastors and nuns.
What are the bad words and what makes them bad? Which bad words are the worst? I suppose most of us think the worst word ever is fuck. That word is an example of a vulgarism. Vulgarisms, or vulgar language, is language as used by the vulgar— the uneducated poor people. A couple hundred years ago when most folks didn’t get much schooling, the upper class— meaning almost everyone who was educated enough to read books— decided certain words were characteristic of the uneducated poor. The list of vulgar language included words like ‘ain’t’ which had no moral taint, but also some old Anglo-Saxon words that educated people were long accustomed to replace with classy Latinate words. They preferred to say ‘intercourse’ for fuck, ‘defecate’ for shit, and ‘urinate’ for piss. In time these words became not only vulgar in the sense that they were uneducated language, they became truly ‘bad words’ that even the uneducated didn’t use in mixed company or in front of the pastor.
Other, less offensive vulgarisms include the slang use of bitch to mean a female human being. Calling a man a bastard when you are not discussing his parents’ marital status is a vulgarism, and just using bastard in polite society when you could have said ‘illegitimate person’ is somewhat problematic.
A vulgarism isn’t intrinsically evil or immoral, it’s just that there are social rules in place which teach us that these words are words that offend others. A person charitably inclined toward others restricts the use of vulgarisms in most circumstances.
Vulgarisms are not the worst type of swearing. That dishonor goes to blasphemy, the act of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Oh, God! Jesus Christ! Christ on a crutch! and God damn you! are examples of blasphemy— the Holy Name being used as a swear rather than a prayer.
Damn and hell can be used in a blasphemous way, and this is why: Only God has the authority to damn (condemn) a sinner to hell. When you say damn this and to hell with that, you are claiming to be able to exercise God’s power.
Blasphemy is the very worst swear, in spite of what society thinks, because it’s the only one that the Commandment about taking the Lord’s Name in vain really applies to. In contemporary society it may be considered mild to say damn instead of to say motherfucker, but that’s because society’s values are all fucked up. That time the President’s pastor said ‘God damn America’ he was sinning, directly breaking a commandment, while if he’d said fuck a few dozen times during the course of his sermon, he would have merely been rude and inappropriate— which could also be somewhat sinful if he was aware it was rude and thus uncharitable to his congregation and deliberately said it anyway, but isn’t in the same class as blaspheming.
Misusing the name of Jesus is considered a swear in Western Civilization because for many centuries an overwhelming majority of persons believed that Jesus Christ was not only a good teacher and a prophet, but the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity. People who did not believe this about Jesus still avoid using His name in vain out of respect for others.
While it may not be blasphemy proper, misuse of the names of prophets and saints (holy Moses!) is highly disrespectful and to be avoided if one is charitably-minded toward others. The same goes for misusing the names of Pagan gods and of the supposed prophets and holy men of other religions. Such usage is unkind to believers in the religion in question, and so it is best avoided.
Minced oaths are the use of similar-sounding substitute words for a blasphemous expression. Gosh darn it! and Judas Priest! are examples of minced oaths. Many Christian preachers used to warn against minced oaths. When you use one, you may be saying gosh or gee but in your heart you are saying ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ and thus there is some blasphemous intent going on. This is why some Evangelical fiction publishers don’t allow the use of minced oaths. They are weak to the point of being silly by contemporary standards, but there is a legitimate moral concern here.
Sexual slang terms when used in public are also a type of bad language. Many of these terms originated among the sort of men who routinely use-and-abuse prostitutes. Other milder terms might once have been socially acceptable language. To use the slang term for penis, prick, or the slang term for vagina, cunt, as a crude reference to a person is beyond rude. People who talk this way should not be surprised if they get their face slapped.
A new type of bad word is the epithet. Vulgar words such as nigger for black person, kike for Jew, and fag and dyke for male and female homosexual are now considered so politically incorrect that uttering them just once is a job-losing event. Although the arbiters of these new rules permit black persons to say nigger and homosexual persons to say fag, dyke and queer. Now, while the arbiters of these new rules are right that it’s not OK to use such words as an epithet to abuse and humiliate some one, some of the now-forbidden words were rather recently considered to be just down-home language. There are many older persons, both black and white, who grew up saying nigger as the normal word for black person in their social group, and they have a hard time changing because it feels to them like they are showing off, pretending to be a person of higher social standing than they are, to use the classier terms like Negro and black person (which mean the exact same things). It’s a bit uncharitable of us to judge our elders harshly for using that word, when it’s society’s opinion of a word that has changed.
Also, by declaring a word to be a forbidden epithet rather than a vulgarism or slang term, we are giving a gift to the bigots. They now no longer need to make clear that they are meaning the word nigger in a racially bigoted way rather than in a down-home hillbilly way. I think bigots should have to explain at great length what they mean when they are insulting a black person rather than having a one-word expression that puts their hate in a nutshell.
It is in any case equally uncharitable to insult a black person using the expression ‘black person’ than to do so using any racial epithet. God’s going to get mad over it either way. I believe the whole political correctness movement, by constantly generating new epithets out of what were once neutral words or slang expressions, is uncharitable. It makes it possible for a political correctness advocate to condemn a person for saying a word that, when he said it, wasn’t recognized as an epithet yet.
With so many varieties of bad words, how do we decide what to say when we are in a bad-word-saying mood? My opinion is that it is somewhat trite to express such a mood by using the same old swears everyone else says these days. Swearing doesn’t make you a rough, tough man’s-man now when pretty little eleven-year-olds are calling mommy a motherfucker for suggesting that a little room-cleaning might be in order. A real tough guy— or gal— might be better served by coming up with some original colorful language of their own, which avoids the whole cliched worlds of blasphemy and vulgarism altogether.
So that’s my take on the swearing issue. Please don’t tell my mother I wrote this.