Do We Even Know What Bad Language Is Anymore?

Everybody has always lived in changing times. But we really live in changing times! The speed and quantity of information, coupled with the scope and density of communications interconnectedness, has greatly accelerated cultural change in America.

One sign of the times is that attitudes about what constitutes appropriate language have shifted noticeably. Certain anatomical references, body-emissions references, and “F-bombs” used to be considered rude, crude, and unfit for professional or public discourse. But now—not so much. It’s harder and harder to find settings where this sort of talk isn’t routine.

So what’s a Christian to do? The answer to this is less simple than many think—and also more simple than many think. I hope these observations may be of some help.

1. It’s somewhat mysterious what actually makes bad words “bad.”

Isn’t it curious that English offers something like a dozen terms for a person’s rear end, but only one them of made the list of words that used to be banned (at least as late as 1972, but probably until the 90’s) on American broadcast TV? Similarly, English offers numerous terms for feces and copulation, but only one or two have a history of being on the definitely impolite list—and the unwritten “words good Christians don’t use” list.

So, why are different terms that refer to exactly the same thing controversial? Teenagers have been asking this question for generations! We still don’t really have a concise, simple answer unless “Because I said so, and if you say that again I’m going to wash your mouth out with a bar of soap!” counts.

What we do know is that words have connotation as well as denotation. They carry some emotional and social-contextual baggage. If you have any kid left in you, the word “excrement” sounds vaguely humorous. “Feces” sounds medical. Other words sound—well, nasty.

But pointing out connotation only backs the question up a notch. Where does connotation come from? What we’re forced to admit, whether we like or not, is that these conventions derive from the shared sensitivities and preferences of a society and they are subject to change over time.

That being the case, some formerly not-bad words become inappropriate and some formerly-off-limits words become generally excepted.

Further, there is no list of bad words in the Bible. (If there were a list, it would be in Hebrew or Greek, and we’d have to decide what the equivalents are in our language, and we’d be right back where we started!)

2. A higher level of precision might help … or not.

Many who pontificate about what words shouldn’t be said (or even voluntarily listened to) do so with a degree of sloppiness that makes it hard for me to take them seriously. They lump it all together as “cussing” or “swearing.” This is fine until you want to think through or communicate why an expression should be avoided or accepted.

Here’s a short list of different kinds of controversial language, noting where the controversy tends to arise. These aren’t dictionary definitions (the dictionaries are no longer very precise on this subject either) but at least have some historical validity and, hopefully, some utility for clear thinking.

  • Scatology – words having to do mostly with excrement and related topics people tend to find disgusting
  • Obscenity – language considered offensive or immoral, usually having mostly to do with human sexual behavior
  • Cursing – pronouncing a wish of evil on someone or something (often including profanity)
  • Profanity – irreverent references to the sacred; often takes the form of insincere invocation of a deity (closely related to blasphemy, the latter tending to be more obviously intentional)
  • Swearing – a promise or oath in the name of something sacred, controversial when casual or insincere, often crossing over into profanity

In conversations with my children and students, I’ve tried to help them consider the values of kindness and respect toward others, reverence toward the sacred, and honor and integrity in making and keeping promises. As the list above shows, these values relate directly to the kind of language we choose to use.

3. Scripture calls us to aim high in the language we use.

As a kid, it always used to annoy me when a pulpiteer would address some popular amusement by saying “Don’ ask what’s wrong with it; ask what’s right with it!” It’s still rhetoric I would avoid, but there’s a kernel of truth there. Some evangelicals seem to always want to be on the cutting edge of acceptable language. It’s as if the goal is to be low as possible without being too low.

But this isn’t a biblical attitude. The teaching of Scripture on this is so widespread and familiar, it’s hard to see why there is any confusion. This is the “more simple than many think” part.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. (Pr 25:11)

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph 4:29)

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. (Eph 5:3–4)

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, (Mt 12:36)

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Mt 5:37)

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (Col 4:6)

so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, (Php 1:10)

4. There’s not much to gain from using “edgy” language.

The Bible does use strong language at times, and some may see these as examples that justify the use of inappropriate language. But this is hasty. The cases of strong language we find in Scripture are not the same thing as indulging in popular vulgarities in our culture. What we do find is that the Bible occasionally uses language that is …

  • intentionally disturbing (e.g., Nah. 3:5, Isa. 30:22 NIV, Mal. 2:3, Ezek. 4:12, Ezek. 23:20 NIV)
  • anatomically and physiologically frank (e.g., 1 Sam 25:22 KJV, Gen. 38:9, Deut. 25:11, Exod. 4:25)
  • poetically frank, if it can even be called frankness (e.g., Song 7:8, Prov. 5:19)

Scripture gives us no reason to think that we’re more effective in evangelism and discipleship if we try to use edgy, “gritty,” or “earthy” language. Who is really impressed by that? Not sinners whom the Father is drawing to faith (John 6:44), and certainly not saints “born again to a living hope” (1 Pet 1:3).

“Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17), not by our clever attempts at cultural relevance.

Over time, language Christians once rejected as not befitting saints may well become suitable for general use. But while these cultural shifts are in progress (or perhaps regress), our privilege is to shine as lights (Phil. 2:15) by using language that is above reproach (1 Pet. 2:12).

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There are 16 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Much appreciated overall; it was interesting a few months back when I informed my children that most of the "cuss words" they're told not to use simply are the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of generally acceptable Norman-French words, and that this can not be precisely what Paul is getting at in places like Ephesians 4:29.  We might avoid them culturally, or because the kind of thing we're saying is "corrupting" or "filthy", but we need to define that in light of Scripture.  And then, of course, we are in something of a morass where we try to ascertain whether the use of word pictures like those of 1 Sam. 25:22 in narrative is acceptable there and not for us, and all that.

But that said, if Scripture is at times earthy, I am not quite sure that we can always assume that there is "not much to gain" from earthiness; it is, after all, God's Word.  We might separate the issue into two regions: first, where our culture makes it unwise to use certain verbiage.  Second, we might do to study deeply what it meant in the Greek to be "corrupting" or "filthy", and how certain ways of phrasing these these things would qualify as that, or as other categories mentioned in Scripture.

Ja, I'm on a bent of "we need to think these things out more".  Guilty as charged.  :^)

Aaron Blumer's picture

Along the way, I've discovered that some of the expressions we used and thought innocent growing up actually have somewhat vile origins. But I don't believe origin/derivation is all that important. Connotations and denotations are attached to the symbols we call words by means of shared usage in a cultural setting.

So using certain expressions can be against biblical principles even if they do have innocuous origins. But the reverse is also true. Forgotten histories are interesting, but little more. 

DLCreed's picture

Excellent synopsis, Aaron!  I appreciate the way you approached the topic and I hope it prompts discussions.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Thanks. Just a side note. I believe I read somewhere reliable that "cussing" and "cuss" are derived from "curse." So, really, the vulgarities/scatology/obscenities are, if we're going to be precise, not "cussing" or "cuss words." They're references to pretty ordinary things (if we exclude some of the creative compounds!), but using terms that we have a tradition of identifying as offensive/inappropriate/unprofessional/rude.

I suspect most cultures have analogous categories and words that are reserved for use when people want to be shocking, offensive, or obscene -- or want to identify with a subculture. In America for a pretty long time, using certain terms identified you with a subculture, whether libertine, criminal, ignorant, poor, or just low. But what happens in a culture when all the "words we only use when we want to be offensive" become colloquial? Do they invent new obscenities? I'd like to know, but my research ran dry at that point!

Bert Perry's picture

Adam, if you read further in the article you linked, the arrest is far more likely to be overturned in court because anti-cussing ordinances have generally been found to be un-Constitutional.  The reporter is actually in far more peril for refusing to obey a lawful order by officers, and for that matter for becoming the focus of the event he was trying to cover.  It at least used to be that getting involved in what you're trying to cover would get a reporter fired. It's also worth noting that the officers are probably in danger of discipline/firing for use of excessive force.

Adam Blumer's picture

It's to show that some communities actually have laws on the books about verbiage in public, which illustrate an understanding in some parts of society of what's acceptable speech and what isn't. Just because the defense attorney says it's unconstitutional doesn't make it so. (Could the man's words be considered threatening law enforcement? A different matter.) Whether the officers used excessive force isn't the point. They had a legal right to make the arrest due to the law. Keep reading: 

Stark learned the hard way that Fairfax County Code 5-1-1 says that “if any person profanely curse or swear or be drunk in public he shall be deemed guilty of a Class 4 misdemeanor.”

It’s unlikely that Fairfax County police often find themselves handcuffing a man on the ground for foul language, but they were legally within their rights to arrest Stark.

Aaron Blumer's picture

Recently at work I read an ordinance from a city code down south (pretty major city, too) where it's still illegal for unmarried couples to move in together. Pretty sure they don't enforce that one!

A lot of these ordinances are just holdovers from very different times. But public obscenity with public drunkenness... I see that sort of ordinance often. They endure because they're a species of public indecency/disorderly conduct/disturbing the peace, etc. So cities like to have some leverage for getting disruptive people away from others who are just trying to enjoy a night out. You generally can't get arrested for saying a bad word. But if you carry on loudly and don't shut up when asked/told to... Yeah, that can still get you hauled down to the station (and probably quickly released with a citation or something) in alot of places.

Aaron Blumer's picture

I had pretty much given up on dictionaries being much help for doing any precise thinking on the topic, but it turns out that the Oxford Concise does a pretty good job after all. In some cases, the sense I'm using is 2nd or 3rd, and in some cases it mixes what I'm trying to keep distinct (pretty unhelpful on the concept of profanity, for example. Also doesn't show how/why the word "swear" came to be used to mean offensive language in general.... But I suspect the longer Oxford has that.).

On the whole, pretty good.

COED: Scatology

scatology /skaˈtɒlədʒi/

■ noun a preoccupation with excrement and excretion.

—derivatives scatological adjective

—origin 19th century: from Greek skōr, skat- ‘dung’ + -logy.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Profanity

profanity /prəˈfanɪti/

■ noun (plural profanities) profane language or behaviour.

▶ a swear word.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Profane

profane /prəˈfeɪn/

■ adjective

1 secular rather than religious.

▶ not initiated into religious rites.

2 not respectful of religious practice.

▶ (of language) blasphemous or obscene.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Curse

curse

■ noun

1 a solemn appeal to a supernatural power to inflict harm on someone or something.

▶ a cause of harm or misery.

2 an offensive word or phrase used to express anger or annoyance.

■ verb

1 use a curse against.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Swear

swear

■ verb (swears, swearing; past swore; past participle sworn)

1 state or promise solemnly or on oath.

▶ (swear someone in) admit someone to a position or office by directing them to take a formal oath.

▶ compel to observe a certain course of action: I am sworn to secrecy.

▶ (swear to) give an assurance that something is the case.

▶ (swear off) informal promise to abstain from.

▶ (swear by) informal have or express great confidence in.

▶ (swear something out) US Law obtain the issue of a warrant for arrest by making a charge on oath.

2 use offensive language, especially to express anger.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Obscenity

obscenity

■ noun (plural obscenities) the state or quality of being obscene.

▶ obscene language or behaviour.

▶ an obscene word or expression.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

COED: Obscene

obscene

■ adjective

1 offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.

Soanes, Catherine, and Angus Stevenson, eds. Concise Oxford English dictionary 2004 : n. pag. Print.

Clipped: November 1, 2017

Exported from Logos Bible Software, 21:18 November 1, 2017.

pvawter's picture

Aaron,

I guess you could be like the KJVO types who swear by the 1828 Webster dictionary as though it were inspired. 

josh p's picture

This brings up a question. In older books when it is said that they swore “oaths” what is that? God’s name in vain or possibly curses as above? 

Aaron Blumer's picture

pvawter wrote:

Aaron,

I guess you could be like the KJVO types who swear by the 1828 Webster dictionary as though it were inspired. 

Wink Yeah, that's it. But for me, it's the inspiration of the COED (Concise Oxford English Dictionary)

Actually did more research on the whole dictionary thing. Will post shortly.

On swore “oaths” what is that?

You'd have to do figure it out on on a case by case from the context I think... and even then, there could be some ambiguity. Sometimes the line between making a solemn promise with an oath vs. a profane oath (insincere or without proper reverence) can be a fine one. But in my experience, in most of the older books swearing and oath is usually just vowing in the name of a deity or some sacred/"sacred" thing associated with the deity.

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

Got some questions about this offline also. First, just to clarify, it's clear to me that (a) there are different ways to use inappropriate language and that (b) understanding what makes the language inappropriate is well worth thinking about (see Scripture passages in the article), and (c) it's very hard to talk about different kinds of bad language without some labels.

That said, one could use completely made up new labels or just number the types or something--or one could use labels that already have a history in the English language. I'm in favor of the latter.

It turns out that my initial impression that the dictionaries were mostly useless on this topic was incorrect. Not only does COED show all the categories I mentioned, but Merriam Webster and American Heritage (editions as recent as 2016) are also pretty close. They tend to overlap  some terms a bit more than the British sources, but the distinctions I'm talking about are still quite evident in the various defintions in these dictionaries.

So here's an info dump...

Merriam Webster on Scatology/scatological
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scatology
Definition of scatology
1 :interest in or treatment of obscene matters especially in literature 
2 :the biologically oriented study of excrement (as for taxonomic purposes or for the determination of diet) 
— 
scatological
\?ska-t?-'lä-ji-k?l\ adjective 

 

American Heritage Dictionary
http://www.yourdictionary.com/scatology

scatology

noun
pl. sca·tol·o·gies 
1.    The study of fecal excrement, as in medicine, paleontology, or biology. Also called coprology .
2.    Obscene language or literature, especially that dealing pruriently or humorously with excrement and excretory functions.
Related Forms:
•    scat'o·log'i·cal scat'o·log'ic 
adjective
•    sca·tol'o·gist 
noun

American Heritage on “Obscene”
https://www.thefreedictionary.com/obscene
obscene

Also found in: Thesaurus, Legal, Acronyms, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia. 
ob·scene
 (ob-sen', ?b-)
adj.
1. 
a. Offensive to accepted standards of decency.
b. Law Of or relating to materials that can be regulated or criminalized because their depiction of nudity, sex, or excretion is patently offensive and without artistic or scientific value.
2. 
a. Morally repulsive; disgusting: "The way he writes about the disease that killed her is simply obscene" (Michael Korda).
b. So extreme in amount as to be objectionable or outrageous: "hammered by stratospheric rents and obscene taxes" (Joe Queenan).

Legal definition of obscenity…
https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obscenity

Obscenity is a category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. Obscenity laws are concerned with prohibiting lewd, filthy, or disgusting words or pictures. Indecent materials or depictions, normally speech or artistic expressions, may be restricted in terms of time, place, and manner, but are still protected by the First Amendment. There are major disagreements regarding obscene material and the government's role in regulation. All fifty states have individual laws controlling obscene material. 
A comprehensive, legal definition of obscenity has been difficult to establish. Yet, key components of the current obscenity test stem from the U.S. Court of Appeals decision in United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses, which determined that a work investigated for obscenity must be considered in its entirety and not merely judged on its parts.
Currently, obscenity is evaluated by federal and state courts alike using a tripartite standard established by Miller v. California. The Miller test for obscenity includes the following criteria: (1) whether ‘the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ appeals to ‘prurient interest’ (2) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (3) whether the work, ‘taken as a whole,’ lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

American Heritage on Profanity and Profane
https://www.thefreedictionary.com/profanity

profanity
Also found in: Thesaurus, Legal, Wikipedia.
pro·fan·i·ty  (pro-fan'i-te, pr?-)
n. pl. pro·fan·i·ties
1. The condition or quality of being profane.
2.
a. Abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.
b. The use of such language.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

profane
Also found in: Thesaurus, Legal, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Related to profane: Sacred and profane
pro·fane  (pro-fan', pr?-)
adj.
1. Marked by contempt or irreverence for what is sacred.
2. Nonreligious in subject matter, form, or use; secular: sacred and profane music.
3. Not admitted into a body of secret knowledge or ritual; uninitiated.
4. Vulgar; coarse.
tr.v. pro·faned, pro·fan·ing, pro·fanes
1. To treat with irreverence: profane the name of God.
2. To put to an improper, unworthy, or degrading use; abuse.

 

American Heritage on Curse
curse
Also found in: Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Idioms, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
curse (kûrs)
n.
1.
a. An appeal or prayer for evil or misfortune to befall someone or something.
b. Evil or misfortune viewed as resulting from such an appeal: believed that the amulet would ward off curses.
2. A source or cause of evil; a scourge: "Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race" (William Ewart Gladstone).
3. A profane word or phrase; a swearword.
4. Ecclesiastical A censure, ban, or anathema.
5. Offensive Menstruation. Used with the.
v. cursed or curst (kûrst), curs·ing, curs·es
v. tr.
1. To invoke evil or misfortune upon; damn.
2. To swear at: cursed the car because it wouldn't start.
3. To bring evil upon; afflict: was cursed with crippling arthritis.
4. Ecclesiastical To put under a ban or anathema; excommunicate.
v. intr.
To utter curses; swear. 

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Merriam-Webster
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/curse

Noun
Definition of curse
1 :a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one :imprecation

    People believe that there is a curse on the house.

2 :a profane or obscene oath or word

    In an antechamber, his lieutenants suddenly heard the shattering of glass and angry curses. —Sam Moses 

3 :something that is cursed or accursed

    "I … will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth."—Jeremiah 26:6 (King James Version) 

4 :evil or misfortune that comes as if in response to imprecation or as retribution

    … intolerance is the greatest curse of every land … —Kenneth Roberts 

5 :a cause of great harm or misfortune :torment

    His fame turned out to be a curse, not a blessing.

curse
verb
Definition of curse
cursed; cursing
transitive verb
1 :to use profanely insolent language against :blaspheme

    cursing his god

2 a :to call upon divine or supernatural power to send injury upon

    He was cursed and fears he will die.

b :to execrate in fervent and often profane terms

    cursed by future generations unless we act now

Merriam-Webster on "Swear"
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/swear

Definition of swear
swore \'sw?r\; sworn \'sw?rn\; swearing
transitive verb
1 :to utter or take solemnly (an oath)
2 a :to assert as true or promise under oath

    a sworn affidavit

    swore to uphold the Constitution

b :to assert or promise emphatically or earnestly

    swore he'd study harder next time

3 a :to put to an oath :administer an oath to
b :to bind by an oath

    swore them to secrecy

4 obsolete :to invoke the name of (a sacred being) in an oath
5 :to bring into a specified state by swearing

    swore his life away

intransitive verb
1 :to take an oath
2 :to use profane or obscene language :curse

American Heritage on "Swear"
https://www.thefreedictionary.com/swear

swear
Also found in: Thesaurus, Medical, Legal, Idioms, Encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
Related to swear: swear words
swear  (swâr)
v. swore (swôr), sworn (swôrn), swear·ing, swears
v.intr.
1. To make a solemn declaration, invoking a deity or a sacred person or thing, in confirmation of and witness to the honesty or truth of such a declaration.
2. To make a solemn promise; vow.
3. To use obscene or blasphemous language; curse.
4. Law To commit oneself by oath to giving evidence or testimony that is truthful.
v.tr.
1.
a. To declare or affirm solemnly by invoking a deity or a sacred person or thing: swore on the Bible that he would tell the truth.
b. To say or affirm earnestly and with great conviction: I swear that I will pay you back.
2. To promise or pledge with a solemn oath; vow: He swore to do his duty. See Synonyms at promise.
3. To utter or bind oneself to (an oath).

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that Strong's 4550 is the definition in Ephesians 4:29.  No?  Core meanings are rotten, putrid, no longer fit for use due to age, and worn out.  It's used a bunch by Jesus in the books of Matthew and Luke to describe a tree bringing forth bad fruit. 

Here's the word for filthiness from Ephesians 5:4, Strong's 151.  Indecent, obscene, base.  And here's the word for "silly talk" in the same verse, "Morologia." Literally "dull talk" or "dull words", we might even translate it "words of morons", since I would guess that's where our word "moron" comes from.   I would have to wonder whether that "foolish" part is "foolish" in the Old Testament sense of not involving just a lack of intellect, but also a lack of morals.  Finally, here's the word "aischrologia" used in Colossians 3:8.  Related to Strong's 151, indecent, filthy, obscene, base.

Now that would seem to push us back towards the English dictionaries, or really trying to suss it out in terms of how the Scripture approaches it.   All too often, it seems we want to discuss it according to our own culture, and a quick look at Scripture tells us "well, unless we want to come out against Scripture like Bowdler did, we're going to have to re-evaluate....".

Aaron Blumer's picture

Yes, the "our setting today" stuff is application and should properly come after understanding the relevant texts.

But it's impossible to go from one language to another without crossing cultures some at the same time. So the lexicon is already looking at Greek, etc. and asking "What's the equivalent in the words and idioms of the English speaking world?" To do that, you have to have a good understanding of the target language and culture, so really both sides of that (interp & application) overlap quite a bit. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

For the curious, FCC makes a distinction between obscenity and indecency, with different sorts of rules for each I guess. They also have a category they call "profanity" but it has nothing at all to do with profaning something holy. So they have contributed significantly to the loss of that concept in our culture... or have made rules that reflect the loss of that concept--or some of both maybe. A pity. 

So for FCC, "profanty" is just extra bad obscenity. Sad

This is their FAQ on it...

https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/guides/obscenity-indecency-profanit...

 

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