Vulgar Language

A friend of mine was telling me about her new job, “I’m the only one in the office who is a Christian. But I think I’ll like working there.” I asked her how she knew she was the only Christian. Religious census on her first day of work? A round of heart-to-hearts?

“Well, the rest of them swear and stuff.” She said.

Over these last two years I’ve started swearing recreationally and when it’s appropriate, and I’m a Christian. So I have a vested interest in my research on the morality of swear words; I’d like to keep using them and be doing the right thing. I searched for the Bible verses the anti-swearing sector (ASS) use to discourage Christians from swearing (cussing, cursing, etc.). The article “Christian Cursing” at biblebelievers.com lists verses in Matthew and Titus. The Matthew one was especially compelling to me:

"But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." (Mat. 12:36-37)

You could call this the writer’s commandment. Writers respect words and language. Good ones make their words do work and carry meaning; idle words have no place.

Biblebelievers.com and some other ASS sites warn against “falling into the language of the world,” and I wonder if words will justify us based on their content or form.

The infamous round of four-letter words in the English language have landed on the list of profanity because in 1066 they were vulgar. Vulgar meaning common. The Norman conquest of England meant the ruling classes spoke French while the lower classes spoke Anglo-Saxon (sometimes called Old English). [Note: villain is similar to vulgar in that its negative meaning derives from social connotations rather than moral ones. Ville, in French, means city. Villain is a city dweller.]

The presences of Anglo-Saxon and French existing together explain the word variety in modern English. French words in law, government, religion, and high culture took the place of the A.S. equivalents. Words for live animals that the peasants worked with have A.S. origins: cow, pig, deer, etc. Their cooked counter parts have French origins: beef, pork, bacon, venison, etc.

Shit, bitch, ass, and hell (among others) also have A.S. origins. The people who spoke these words were probably from the lower classes.

David Foster Wallace talks about, among other things, sub-dialects in his article Authority and American Usage, “There are innumerable sub- and subsubdialects based on all sorts of things that have nothing to do with locale or ethnicity — Medical-School English, Peorians-Who-Follow-Pro-Wrestling-Closely English, Twelve-Year-Old-Males-Whose-Worldview-Is-Deeply-Informed-By-South-Park English — and that are nearly incomprehensible to anyone who isn't inside their very tight and specific Discourse Community (which of course is part of their function).” The way (or ways) we talk is determined by the groups we are a part of and determines the groups we will be able to join in the future. Not ever swearing is a church-goers shibboleth, at least in general. That’s why my friend assumed her coworkers were not Christians; it wasn’t because swearing is a sin and Christians don’t sin. The pop-Christian community goes from being wary of shit to believing all shit is bullshit and will damn you to hell. A Christian sub-dialect is fine.

But it is limited.

Speaking only pop-C sub-dialect makes it harder to make friends outside this group. I wonder if this is why some parents ban swear words – not so much because swearing itself is bad, but because they don’t want their children to associate with the wrong kind of people. With a limited number of sub-dialects, kids can’t associate with any crowds but their own. It seems to me that Jesus lived with more concern for the out-groups, the ability to meet with anyone, and inclusion than for vocabulary. Just saying.


  1. I made someone sit in the quiet room for an hour today because she said shit.
    I don't want her to say it because it is disrespectful.
    I say it all the time.
    Just saying.. well, shit.

  2. It's funny how the two audiences (in general) that it's not a good idea to cuss around are 1) little kids and 2)authority figures like parents or teachers. Figure that one out.

  3. O love this kind of exploratory writing. You are incredibly good at covering your basis. This kind of thing could be really helpful to me when I become a Lawyer.
    I had a similar inner dialogue when I was in high school. I find societal norms fascinating!!! I swear like a sailor when I'm lazy and in non-disrespectful ways either. I rarely use those words slanderously, 99% of the time I use them as expletives which I could not, by any means, replace with another word.
    Most interesting to me though is this girl you mentioned. Her notion of what a christian is/looks like/speaks like, is very limiting. From my understanding of christian, the only thing that they(we) have in common is our savior. God is not limited and thus is not limited when it comes to who falls under his umbrella.
    excluding people who swear is a huge assumption, and obviously one which is incorrect. In my experience, the only people who don't swear are generally white people who grew up in a profanity-clean home, and spend the majority of their time in a profanity-clean environment be it clean talking friends or what have you. When you think about the people who have the (ahem) luxury of that situation, the gap is very narrow. Lets be frank: this most likely rules out one-parent households, low-income households or any household that encompasses a substantial level of angst, anger, stress and the like because swear words are most likely to arise in these circumstances... Geeze, all it take is something rudimentary like having the toilet break, or burning your hand on a hot plate.
    are those people not "christian"?
    Frankly, I find this assumption to be pretty ridiculous and quite ignorant.
    I know a fair number of clean-talkers who would recoil and turn green if you mistook them for a christian.

    I will say one thing against swearing. Some people use swear words to fill in their language and that is the easiest way to identify an idiot, who clearly has little to no vocabulary. It's their loss because as soon as they open their mouth- they are exposed.