As a hockey goalie, I sometimes find myself in a locker room among new people as a substitute goalie. The language of the locker room is, shall we say, “different” from normal conversation. What often happens is this: someone asks what I do for a living, I say that I’m an Episcopal Priest, and someone(s) always apologizes for the language they used moments ago.
With my best look of piety, I deadpan “Thanks…just don’t &$%@*# let it happen again.” Breaks the ice, every time.
I am fascinated with the way popular culture approaches “the words you can’t say on television.” I am amazed how many religious people think these words are non-negotiable in their wrongness for use and outlawed by the Bible. Many teach their children that this language is full of sin and should not ever be used with the only reason that “it’s wrong”…which of course, encourages its use out of parents earshot. I also think it’s fair to say that many people don’t consider why these words can be hurtful as well.
We generally call these words and expressions “swear words,” but I wish to make some clear distinctions between “vulgar” words and “curses and oaths.” In my opinion, The Bible is concerned with “curses and oaths.” I’ll write more in another post sometime soon, but will quickly say that I define “curses” as the asking for God’s action against someone or something (God “curse” that person…with a bolt of lightning, eternal hell, or some similar action). An oath, on the other hand, takes God’s name and binds a person to or against someone or some action. Peter “swore an oath” that he did not know Jesus. These actions are clearly wrong in the Bible, for good reason.
“Vulgar” words are not really addressed by The Bible, and are in a completely different category. Vulgar words are usually either slang for the anatomy, what comes in and out of our anatomy, and the things one can do with one’s anatomy. (I only recently considered how many vulgar words this description covers.)
I believe that vulgar words have an important role to play in our communication with one another and the world.
Now, it may seem strange for me to write about vulgar words. I think, however, that our general pious aversion to such words has hurt our culture more than it’s helped. We need to teach each other that it matters not that we use vulgar words, but HOW we use them. We need to be aware of the real affects of such words in our society.
First off, a vulgar word or phrase sometimes is the only way to give voice to something that happens to us: the moment of realization. They can express frustration, shock, disbelief, the unbelievable, and the outright funny. Vulgar words, in this context, are understood by all who hear it. The vulgar word or phrase is often a moment of bonding: leading to sympathy, empathy, or in the best cases…uncontrollable laughter. There is no meanness, no evil or ill intent, and no desire to provoke someone. It is just the perfect word(s) to express the moment.
In a similar way, a vulgar word can add just the right amount of emphasis to something. Use your imagination…
I’ll dare to say that both of these examples are good ways to use vulgar words. But it’s very clear that vulgar words lose their power when they are used casually to stand in for every expression. If every fifth word out of someone’s mouth is a vulgar word, they become common and meaningless. The “specialness” of vulgar words is that we DON’T use them in polite conversation, or around children. The “special use” of these words, I believe, holds no offense to God. Perhaps, God might even be enjoying the moment along with everyone else…
(Quick note: I will concede the argument that “vulgar words” could be considered “curses” in certain contexts. If I miss the nail with the hammer I swing, and smash my thumb instead, the vulgar word I yell out might be technically a curse. But I think it’s also fair to say that it is a heat of the moment expression of pain and dismay over my ineptitude, more than it is the desire for God to intervene and act against the hammer.)
Vulgar words are also used to temporally describe people who anger or frustrate us. It’s an understandable way to “blow off steam,” but there are plenty of pitfalls. It’s a potential mess if this gets back to the person in question. To go further, it’s not a generous thing to reduce someone in this way, especially if we let ourselves believe that our “choice word” accurately describes a person. If we stay in the “vulgar place,” we make no attempt to understand the person or their actions. We might actually be more healthy as a whole if we resist the urge to describe people, even really unpleasant people, in this way.
I can hear some of you saying “Oh, come on, get real Kurt.” Alright, I will a little bit…perhaps it’s not unhealthy to think “you jerk” when someone acts in a petty, mean or unreasonable way. But I maintain that it’s easy to let a “harmless characterization” keep us from really dealing with conflict, which can clearly hurt us and our relationships with others.
This leads to a distinction: it is different to call a rival a vulgar word than to jokingly or casually “describe” a friend. For example, a good friend, seeing me do something particularly not brilliant, makes a witty or ironic comment. I then suggest to him that he’s such a _____, (or to go do such and such), and he might reply, “I love you too.”
This, in my opinion, can be a term of endearment. My friend knows that this isn’t real name calling, or meant to degrade, disparage, or bring down. I don’t think my friend is really this: quite the opposite is actually true. This is cement of friendship and bonds of affection.
The danger here is that context is absolutely critical. It’s very easy to step over the line and to hurt or enrage a friend or loved one.
There is also the problem and challenge of what I call the “vulgar group words” that are slang for race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. These words are the ones that have been used to hurt so many people at various times…can they be used in a positive way?
This gets really tricky. As a white, heterosexual, protestant male, I believe that I have no claim to any of these words. I avoid using them because of how they have been used in the past to inflect pain and dominance over groups of people. There are plenty of choice “generic” vulgar words to use, that I don’t need to chance misunderstanding.
What about those who are in the afflicted group? Certain offensive and hurtful words that have been used to degrade tend to get reclaimed and rebranded by the afflicted group.
The “safest example” to talk about is the b-word for women. (I think this might be considered safer because “b____” generally describes characteristics of a particular woman instead of all women, which is unlike most of the other words.) Books to “claim your inner b____,” and the female singer who sings that, among other things, that “I’m a b____,” are attempts by women to recast the word to express alternatives to the negative way men have branded women.
While I recognize the sincere attempt to “turn a negative into a positive,” I wonder if this really works. What do men end of thinking when they hear a woman proclaim she (or someone else) is a b_____? Do they understand what’s being said, or do they hear the classic insult and putdown? Does it matter what they might think?
This conversation across our groups might be helpful in breaking down stereotypes and barriers, but it cannot happen if we simply lump all vulgar words as “bad.”
So I say, let vulgar words take their proper place in our language without apology. At the same time, let us talk openly and honestly about the power of language, and consider its affects on each other. That distinction of “right or wrong” is a conversation worth having with other adults, as well as our children.