Recently, I was at a conference in Tampa with representatives of churches and ministries from all over the world. At one point an evangelist got up to address the assembly. While bemoaning a too common lack of boldness in the church she said, “The problem is there are too many wussy Christians.” Since I love language and finds words and the way we put them together fascinating, it struck me as interesting that in such a setting, among all those church people, this person had publicly used a word that I would have expected to bring gasps of shock, yet the only reaction I heard was agreement. My surprise is not a statement about whether that word is or is not appropriate. My surprise is caused by a lifetime of interaction with church people, who—let’s admit it—are often quicker to take offense than others. Had she used the original form of the word (with an initial ‘p’ instead of a ‘w’) the response would have unquestionably been very negative. This brought me back to a question I have been wrestling with for some time: “What makes some words bad and others good? Why are some expressions more acceptable than others?”
About 20 years ago, I knew a young youth leader (They’re always young, aren’t they?) who would occasionally pepper things he said in church with the word “crap.” He told me he did this intentionally to gauge the reaction of the audience—to see who was and was not offended by the word. He saw it as sort of “a legalist detector.” Of course, I thought it was silly and, though the word did not offend me, it was obvious that the practice occasionally interfered with his ministry.
My fascination with the standards of offense has been fueled by experiences with people from other cultures and regions. I find it interesting that people from different regions, though speaking the same language, can so greatly differ on what words are acceptable and which ones are not. For example, I’m from Texas and had my first experience with different cultures, like a lot of young men, in Basic Training in the Army. We had people from all over the US and even some from other countries. One morning, a recruit from the Northeast asked me for a “fag.” Of course, I didn’t know what to think and was quite confused (and even a bit alarmed!) until I learned this was a regional term for a cigarette.
Before continuing, I need to give a disclaimer. In this article I will be writing about words that offend. First, some will wonder why I need to mention the words at all instead of simply addressing the concept of swearing, without the actual words. This is not possible because of the intent of this article and the way I need to handle the subject. Because of what I intend to discuss, I will be forced to include some offensive words, in one form or another—perhaps some that I would personally never use. Of course, some of these words will offend a few (kind of like my earlier use of the word “crap”), while others could potentially offend everyone who reads them. In mulling over this, I have struggled with how to handle the actual words—some considered quite vulgar—in my writing. Should I simply write the actual word and not worry about the feelings or perceptions of the reader? Should I use wingdings to replace letters? Perhaps I should say “the S-word,” “the D-word” or “the F-word” in place of the actual words. Should I “spell them out”? That would be an interesting idea because since this is written you could say they are all spelled out rather than spoken. So, I know that won’t work. Perhaps I could change a vowel of the word or the order of letters, in effect making it another word—perhaps saying “carp” instead of “crap.” Each of these has its own problems. I can’t really use any of them, because these are some of the practices I want to discuss. I want to ask and answer, why do we handle certain words and concepts the way we do and how should we as Christians handle them in the way we communicate? To work through this I choose to replace certain letters in some words with the underscore. For example: sh_t and f_ck. Consider this a placeholder for the word, and not a use of the actual word itself.
So what makes a word offensive? Is it context? Is it the word itself? Is it the reason for which the word is used? Could it be that certain words are sinful?
That last question brings up an important concept for those of us who believe God defines right and wrong, good and bad, sin and not sin. What words would offend God? Keep in mind that there are thousands of human languages and God understands them all. I was once asked by a Korean woman, “How do Americans pray since God speaks Korean?” I figured she was joking; she had to be joking; “Please tell me she was joking!” Nope, she wasn’t joking. She had never considered that God might speak other languages than her own. Now, while we may find this funny, it is important for this discussion. Many people, who would quickly admit that God understands all languages, will still act as if a certain combination of sounds is, or itself, offensive to God. Keep in mind that human language includes millions of words (one thought concept expressed in different unrelated languages will have many combinations of sounds used to represent it ), but the human voice can produce only a limited set of sounds. Some of these sounds are more common than others and certain ones are easier to combine than others because of the geometry of our mouths and throats. Those easier sound combinations find their way into various languages in a wide assortment of languages. One example I like to use is the combination of “C” and “A” or “ca.” We find in “caca.” While most people who know anything about Spanish know that this word means excrement, there is some debate about whether it is vulgar or not. Should it be considered the equivalent of the English word “sh_t” or “poop”? No one really seems to know for sure. Vulgarity or not, it is entertaining that in Korean this word is used as the proper way to address the President of the Republic of Korea. A Korean would say, “Yes, Caca,” or “No, Caca” if questioned by their President. I bring this up to show that the idea God would be offended by certain combinations of sounds is ludicrous. If there is sin in words, then it must be in how the words are used, the context in which they are used or the purpose for which they are used, not in how the words are formed. Discerning the proper way for a Christian to communicate in any language will not be found in some Biblical version of George Carlin’s “Words you can’t say on television.” There is no list of “Words a Christian must never say.” Don’t assume I mean that anything we say is acceptable and there is no Christian standard for speech, but we’ll come back to that.
Does this mean we simply judge a word not by the sounds that make it, but with the way it is used? Alright, let’s consider that. If this is the standard then why do some find it acceptable to replace one group of sounds with another group and use it the same way? For example, I have heard Christians say, “Oh Fudge!” when frustrated or disappointed, even when these same people would be offended if someone said, “Oh F_ck!” I remember a church board member saying, “That is freaking expensive!” No one on the board seemed to care. Had he said, “That is f_cking expensive” he would have been in trouble. At the very least it would have raised a few eyebrows. I have even heard children use such pseudo-swearing around their parents with no reaction. When my own children have tried this I have pointed out that they are still swearing because no one is fooled by the other word. So, why aren’t these words as offensive as the words they replace? What makes it acceptable to use another group of sounds in the same exact way as another group of sounds that would offend if used that way?
Perhaps this word-swapping is acceptable because people speak this way to prevent offense. This would mean, once again, that it was the intention behind the word that matters more than the actual word used. Yet, did a speaker using the original word (for example “f_ck” instead of “fudge”) with the intent to offend or did they simply express themselves in a habitual way, without considering that it might offend? Perhaps with some cases of offensive speech the person didn’t even know the word was wrong. If you believe this phrase is wrong, no matter the intent, you also have to condemn the person who swaps into it another word. Be consistent. I don’t really care if you take offense, just do so consistently. If it is wrong to say “What the hell,” so is saying “What the heck!” If it is wrong to say, “I don’t give a f_ck,” then it is equally wrong to say, “I don’t give a frick!” Do you take offense at the first, but use the second? If the latter is acceptable, please don’t complain when someone else uses the former.
I mentioned the possibility that the person may not have known the word was offensive and I have an illustration to show this. I know an American who married a Korean woman. She didn’t speak much English when they met, so this man taught his wife most of her English. Unfortunately he was a soldier—with a soldier’s mouth—and not a Christian. One time they were visiting another couple who had a small baby. When the baby needed a diaper change this woman offered to help. While changing the diaper this Korean woman looked at her husband with a large grin and said, “The baby took a sh_t.” Her husband almost wet himself laughing because of the offended, hurt, appalled, mortified, disgusted (I’m struggling for a strong enough word for this woman’s shock) look on the face of the American mother. This Korean woman had no idea the word she used was offensive. Her knot-headed husband hadn’t properly taught her (Yes, I admit to being that knot-head—“My name is Ken and I’m a recovering knot-heat”). So did the woman say something wrong? Sure. Was she wrong for saying it? No. How could she be? She was speaking the only way she knew. She was using the way she thought was right and proper. Many of those who speak offensively don’t realize they are being offensive. Rather than being quick to bristle up and get offended perhaps we should just let the person speak. Your ears are not going to bleed because of obscenity. I have been a soldier, a Sheriff’s patrol chaplain, a jailer and a prison guard. If bad words spoken, yelled or otherwise cast at you could do injury, I would have been dead decades ago. This is not to say you should simply accept and excuse anything that is said. However, it is important to remember that you are responsible for what comes out of your mouth, not what comes out of mine or anyone else’s (except your children, of course). What you say says a great deal about you and can permanently tarnish another’s opinion of you. But what you hear others say in your proximity can do nothing to you.
People are quick to get offended, especially when they don’t understand. Several years ago a popular conservative radio host described someone as “niggardly.” Since he was white, and a hated conservative many people got angry, assuming he had used a word based on a racial slur. However, the word is not even based on that slur. Niggardly means stingy and comes from niggard (a stingy person) and this came to us from the Middle English nyggard. The racial slur is not even related, but comes from the word for black (negro in Romance languages). The offense to this person’s use of the word comes from erroneous assumptions by those who heard it. A similar thing happened to me when I worked at a prison as a Corrections Officer. One morning an offender came to my office window looking very unhappy. I asked, “Why the sour puss?” This term refers to someone’s frowning face and comes from the Irish word for mouth: pus. This person assumed I had questioned his genitalia. Did the radio host say something wrong? No. Did I say something wrong to the offender? No. However, people got offended in both cases. Their offense was born of their own ignorance. Perhaps when someone says something that seems offensive, we should realize that it may not be offensive in reality. It may have a meaning we are not familiar with, or it may not mean what the speaker thinks it means. From the offender’s reaction, I learned that, even though the phrase “sour puss” should offend no one, perhaps I should stop using it in the prison—a place not known for housing people with the most expansive vocabularies.
Some words are more offensive than others. Some will offend a few, others will offend most. The youth leader’s use of the word “crap” is an example of the former. Some find this word very vulgar and offensive while others find it innocuous. I still remember a cousin telling me she was old enough to use the word “crap,” because it really wasn’t a bad word. I also know when I tried to use it around my mother and I got my mouth washed out with soap. So how do we know when and when not to use such a word? I know, someone will ask, “Well, since it offends some why not simply refrain from using it, ever?” This may seem admirable and right, but very difficult to actually practice. To be consistent one would have to refrain from using any word that might offend someone, somewhere. This is impossible to do and still communicate. The ones recommending this may think they never say anything offensive, but they are wrong. Anyone believing this has not talked to enough people, from enough regions or enough cultures. You have no idea how many times I have been chastised about an innocent word or phrase that is even used in the Bible, because that person decided or had been taught it was offensive (example withheld to protect the easily offended). Why not instead talk without intending to offend and listen without seeking a reason for offense? If you believe a word is wrong then model that behavior for others. If they choose to use it, just let it pass. Of course I’m not talking about someone you are responsible for teaching, like a student or your child. That is different. But in your daily interactions with other adults why be quick to take offense simply over words? I couldn’t count the times I have heard a Christian scolding a non-believer about the evil of a certain word. I almost fell over when I heard one such exchange. The Christian said, “Please don’t talk like that around me. I’m a Christian.” The non-believer found a simple solution, “Then go the #^&@ away” (CENSORED). At that point I shot coffee out of my nose, which was very painful—so I had my own reason to be offended.
It never ceases to amaze me how many Christians will alienate and drive away a person in need of salvation simply because their Christian ears take offense at a certain combination of letters. I want to shout, “They are a non-believer. How do you expect them to speak? It’s a word! Grow up! The person is far more than the words that are coming from their mouth!”
This brings me to an important question: “How should we as Christians speak?” Some passages of scripture are quite useful in this regard and others not so much. One that is popular is James 3:1-12, which describes the tongue as being like a fire able to set a great blaze. Yes, there is mention of blessing and cursing and yes we often call the use of bad words “cursing.” However, this is not what he is talking about. He is saying all of this in the context of teaching and the danger of judgment for those who presume to teach. The precarious nature of speaking is part of the caution because of the danger of teaching. The danger is that, in teaching, a person might speak curses upon others whom God has also made. It has nothing to do with “bad” words, but with “badly spoken” teachings. I guess a good way to apply this would be take care in what you say about people while preaching or teaching. Use the opportunity to teach and edify, not to tear other’s down—to bless and not curse. A passage such as this scripture is only useful if used properly.
There are many better passages telling us how we should speak. One of the best is Ephesians 4:29, which (in the RSV) says, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” This passage speaks of what we shouldn’t say and what we should say. This is not done in a way that simply reiterates but in a way that it expands. The first part about evil talk uses the phrase “corrupt words.” The word used (sapron) is the word for putrid, dead, rotting. Interestingly this is where we get the term for a creature that lives on dead organic matter: “saprophyte.” So, this is telling us not to use words that are rotten, decomposing and dead. It then goes on to say that we are to limit ourselves to words that build up and that give grace to the hearer. You could also say it as, “Don’t speak with defiling words, but use words that will edify and build up.” This passage is telling us that all the words we speak are to edify.
But once again, I am drawn to the question of what is and is not a corrupt, or defiling, word? Are some combinations of sounds corrupt in themselves? We’ve already answered this negatively. Perhaps it is the meaning of the word that makes it corrupt. If this is so then why is “sh_t” corrupt and offensive, but the word “feces,” “excrement,” or “poop” not? Another possibility is how the word is used. Does using a word as an expletive make it offensive? If this is true then we have major problems, because I’ve already pointing out that most Christians seem to have no problem with people using words like shoot, darned, danged, heck, “H-E-double hockey sticks,” fricking, freaking, or fudge as expletives. Another problem with this is that many of the words used as expletives are just as offensive when used in other ways. Imagine if your two year old told you, “I need to sh_t.” I know what would happen. You’d sh_t a brick! (I really said “shoot a brick” and have no idea what you think I said—I don’t use that kind of language.) But that proves my point. None of these things can really be defined as the reason why we see some words as bad and others and acceptable. There seems to be no hard and fast rule. The offensiveness of a word is a cultural phenomenon. Just trying to figure out the rules from area to area can be mindboggling. How many readers are old enough to remember when President George H. W. Bush rode through the streets of London and the double peace signs he was waving caused quite a stir? According to British practice he was “flipping the bird” to the entire city. I remember one time in Korea, when some kids came up to see the big American soldier (me). I was handing out candy and as one kid approached without even thinking, just as I had done to hundreds of American children, I reached out, made a quick hand gesture and said, “I got your nose.” The hand gesture I hope all are familiar with—thumb sticking out between my index and middle finger. The kid ran off screaming and I was shocked. The Korean soldier next to me asked, “Why did you flip that kid off?” Imagine trying to communicate while trying to navigate the ins and outs of what does or does not offend. Perhaps as Christians we should avoid using terms (and gestures, who knew?) that we know are offensive, when we know they will offend, but then extend grace and patience to those around us.
One of the hazards of my current position (as a pastor) is that everyone thinks I have virginal ears. People around are always apologizing for their words—I’m talking about non-believers, not my church board. Once when hunting with an old friend, he was trying to drive the truck through some terrible mud and was shifting, turning, braking, and accelerating, in a constant struggle to not get stuck. Interspersed with each action was a colorful stream of curse words, each followed quickly by an apology. All the way through the mud it was “F_ck! Sorry! D_mn! Sorry! Sh_t! Sorry! G_d D_mn! Sorry!. About half way through, I yelled, “Don, just get us through this and you can apologize for it all on the other side!” I didn’t care what came out of his mouth—that was his business. At that point I only cared about not getting stuck miles back from the main road in gumbo mud.
It’s too bad we Christians have such a reputation for taking offense when others just want to talk. They aren’t trying to push our buttons. They aren’t trying to get us to curse along with them. They don’t mean to offend. They just want to talk and that is the way they talk. Why not let your words be full of grace and simply overlook what they say without demanding an apology or demanding that they conform themselves to your standards.
What about the words coming out of your own mouth? Of course, we shouldn’t curse. We should edify with what we say. So does this mean there are words that should never come out of a Christian mouth? Some would give a long list; some, a short list. I know some who would give no such list. While I am not going to take a side in this, I will challenge you. If you would never say, “Oh sh_t!” then why would you say “Oh shoot!”? If you would never speak of “that d_mned dog” then why speak of “that danged dog”? Instead of “What the heck?” wouldn’t it be enough to say, “What?” Is the former really different from “What the hell?”
As I said before, let’s speak with words meant to edify. Let’s not seek to offend, or to assault with our words. However, when someone says something that offends us, let’s be gracious and love them without wagging our fingers at them or expressing our outrage, with pretentions of moral superiority. It is just a matter of time until something we say, will need someone else to extend grace to us.