The Use of Words, Part One (Profanity)

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LanguageDisclaimer: though censored, this blog post will be using words that are profane and not fit for all company. This is not a devotional, but it is from a Christian’s perspective. I have bias. You have been warned. 

Me and the idea of vocabulary have an interesting relationship. Notice that I don’t say my vocabulary  specifically, but rather, the general idea of the use of words. I don’t fret as much with what words I use as with how I use the words I use. The purpose of talking, for the most part, is to convey a message. Though I know people who seem to be able to talk without conveying any coherent message. Thus, my brain often automatically chooses the words that are associated in my head with some concept or another. I choose the words that I think will most readily convey the message that I intend to relate. I’m by nature an introvert, and most of what I say is calculated beforehand and, to me at least, is important at some level.

But we were talking about vocabulary. Let’s do that.

On Swearing

I was raised in a conservative Christian home, and the topic of swearing was not a major theme in my house, but I was taught throughout my life that language is an important part of how we present ourselves to others. I cannot ever recall either of my parents swearing in any sense of the word, though “non-profane” exclamations were frequently uttered (crap, dang, darn, crud, etc…). I remember hearing my neighbor use that particular four letter word that is used for excrement, and I was quite curious as to its meaning. (My parents were not happy with the new word I had learned, and they ensured that he was sober before I was entrusted to his company again.) I was not exposed to much foul language in everyday conversation when I was younger–partly owing to the company my family kept, and partly owing to the social environment that pervades much of the Southern U.S.

Now that I’m older and have had the chance to really consider the implications of the words that I use, I still do not swear, per se. I do still use various exclamations, but they’ve never been a profanity substitute for me; they’re just exclamations that take the form of words. That’s my take, anyway. Allow me to attempt to explain.

I view profanity in three distinct levels. First of all is the use of exclamations. I’ll call exclamations words that occur after a moment of surprise, disgust, horror, etc.

Wow! That house is huge!

Dang! Why did you have to sneak up on me like that?

D**n, man! What are you wearing?

Let’s start with the first, simple exclamation. We can obviously have words that are used when people are surprised or mad, but that have no negative connotations. Nobody would or does consider these words profanity. I’ve never heard “hey, watch your language,” after someone says “wow!.” These words exist to express our emotions in an audible and standardized form.

The second level is comprised of exclamations include the “non-profane” words that are sometimes cited as profanity substitutes. I use these words fairly often, and I do regret the frequency with which I do use them, but I don’t consider their use morally wrong. I merely regret at times that my vocabulary includes words that are at their best annoying and at their worst vulgar. Let’s use the word “crap” as an example. This word has been used so commonly as an exclamation that its origin has been largely overshadowed. If someone calls a thing crap, he is calling it worthless or nonsense, but he is not necessarily calling it excrement. The word is vulgar, disgusting, and unfortunate, but it is not profane.

I have heard arguments that this level of exclamation is merely a substitute for profanity, and while this may sometimes be the case, I do not think that it is a rule. Excrement is not by default called by a profane name. Excrement is disgusting, repulsive, and generally not something with which we want to be associated, but it is not profane. Vile things are easily made profane, but let’s not dissolve into that discussion. The most neutral term for excrement is excrement. Moving up the scale, I would say that poop and crap are generally on the same level, though the first is more juvenile. Neither of these are profane. Only moving up that scale do we get to the language that is considered profane, and I will trust that the reader will know to what word I am referring. Perhaps if one has become accustomed to swearing, then the use of a second-tier  word may be substitutionary, but that does not bring that word up to the level of an inherently profane word.

From a Christian perspective, I would say that it would be best for us to refrain from the use of second-tier language for two reasons, the first being that some are easily offended or tempted to swear, and we should be accommodating of as many as possible, especially when all we must do is avoid certain verbiage. The second reason that I give is that some words are just generally not quality vocabulary. The root of crap is excrement, and comparisons to excrement should generally be reserved for something that is genuinely worthless, deserving of being called refuse. Flippant references to excrement are, in my opinion, not the best use of our vocabulary, and I think that the Bible is quite clear on doing everything we do to the best of our capability. Are we sinning when we use second-tier language? Probably not, but I don’t think it should be a habitual occurrence.

Let’s move on to the third level. This level is that plane on which resides those words that are not acceptable in the presence of minors (miners are ok, though) and polite company. These words have been largely marginalized and accepted by society, yet their use still determines the ratings of movies and games, the appropriateness of conversations, and whether or not one should put a warning before one’s blog post. Self-references for the win. This level is a place that I’ve always found interesting. Certain words are considered less-offensive than others, but they still find themselves in the realm of profanity.

I’d like to make an argument for the disuse of profanity, but let’s start by exploring why people use profanity. Profanity seems to be more and more often seen in mainstream society as an institution that is acceptable and normal. The shock factor of certain words has worn off, and vocabularies have been stunted in the area of exclamations. This is unfortunate in itself, but I have an equal problem with marginalization of definitions. It is not uncommon to hear someone exclaim “d**n that idiot driver,” when in reality, if the speaker were to consider the source meaning of the verb in his statement, he might reconsider his proclamation. This could bring us to a discussion of intention versus statement, but I’ll stay away from that for now. Suffice it to say that I think that this is unfortunate and indicative of a much larger problem.

I think that many people who regularly and casually use profanity do so without an intentional thought as to what the words mean or imply. If this is the case, I would encourage them to consider the meanings of the words they say. I’d love to have a conversation about the intentions of a phrase versus the meanings of its individual components, so please feel free to comment.

The last note that I wish make might be obvious, but I feel that I should still say it. Certain profanity, in my mind, has a place in our vocabulary; the damnation or damning of an object is a proper use of the word, but the implications are serious and should be taken as such. Hell is a place, and I have no problem with the word Hell. Used as an exclamation, though, the place is trivialized to a mere utterance of surprise or anger. On that note, the use of “h-e-double-hockey-sticks” is an obvious substitutionary phrase. It’s amusing, yes, but it does nothing in the way of lessening your language. The allusion to a word is the same in the mind of someone who knows the word as the utterance.

Certain other profanity, however, has no place in our vocabulary, if we are attempting to use language in the best way possible. The various profane sexual words that refer to genitalia or or actions are purely vile. They have no redeeming value, and I am of the view that they should not be used. Excrement in its profane form is simply base. These words have no worth outside of shock value, and they can do nothing to add to our experience when conversing. Oftentimes, they have the opposite effect.

That’s all for now, and these are my thoughts on profanity in language.

~ Chris

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4 thoughts on “The Use of Words, Part One (Profanity)

    findingdaily said:
    21 August , 2015 at 15:28

    I have to agree with your opinion. It saddens me how society is so desensitized to profanity (amongst other things). I work in a pediatric ER & I am constantly redirecting parents (and sometimes the kids) in their choice of wording. It honestly blows my mind. Growing up, I’d be in so much trouble for the slightest utterance of the words, “dumb, stupid or shut-up”. Anyway, my own children learn that it’s a sign of respect to use manners & to I stain from vulgar words in any form.
    Great post!
    Side note: I’m reading a book called “Conversation Peace” by Mary Kassian
    It’s geared toward improving relationships through our spoken words (& behaviors that accompany them). It’s a great read so far! 👍🏻

      findingdaily said:
      21 August , 2015 at 15:29

      *abstain (not I stain) LOL

      xanthuskidd responded:
      21 August , 2015 at 17:00

      Hey! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment! That must be a difficult place to work; I have a hard time fathoming. I’m sure that misbehavior has always existed, but the use of foul language by children seems to be more prevalent than in previous generations.

      I think one reason for this is the move that America is taking away from surface Christianity. In the past (especially here in the Bible Belt), it was expected that one went to church on Sunday, even if that was the extent of one’s faith. Foul language was discouraged by those adults who still kept that “do-good attitude.” With the gradual decline of that influence, I think that the inhibitions faded as well.

      That book looks interesting. I think that intentionality in conversation is one of the most important and obvious ways of effecting good conversational habits.

      Have a great day!
      Chris

    Scorpion Sting said:
    28 August , 2015 at 15:14

    Nice topic, I have what is considered to be a foul mouth in all company I keep. Why? Oh I guess it’s just part of who I am and how I live my life. Words are words, people make the choice to become butthurt if they here words spoken or see words written because they feel that their opinions matter more or matter first. If a person uses profanity or not does not make them wiser or less of a person. Many attribute the use of profanity is because an individual is uneducated or unreligious but it is seen straight across the board no matter a person’s status. Either way, many people use profanity in every day conversation because certain words always fit into the conversation. I don’t know why people take offense, seems to me there are better things to spend their time being offended by, but I’m not an expert and this entire thought is just my opinion.

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