Like, Relativism, You Know?

Our language is wedded to our culture, in sickness or in health, for better or for worse, till death or illiteracy do them apart. If this is not readily apparent, think about our curses. Back when we had a faith, curses were fabulously blasphemous. ‘Sblood’ (Christ’s blood), or ‘swounds’ (Christ’s wounds) come immediately to mind when considering the old vulgarities of the English language. Unfortunately for us, when the religious fervour of our culture faded, these marvelous words faded with it. So feel free to sling ‘em around your boss – unless he’s a closet English-Lit Major, you’re in the clear. (Though in fairness, a few curses of more obscure origin remain; they are simply no longer considered curses. Blimey – for instance – is derived from ‘by Our Lady’, but has utterly no offensiveness attached to it, much less any blasphemy. Geez – from the name Jesus – is another good example.)

But regardless, a brilliant modern case of this obedience of language to its culture is seen in the French curse “Tabernac!”, derived from ‘tabernacle’. (As in: “Tabernac! Les zombies est dans l’ecole!”.) Widely and colorfully in use not 50 years ago, there are places in French Canada where the word is going extinct. The reason is simple. In an ever-secularizing France, no one knows what they are blaspheming any more. We Americans are a little better off, but let’s be honest; outside of our retention of ‘goddammit’ we’re hardly a blasphemous people. Now we – along with the rest of the modern world – say ‘f*ck’.

And I, personally, don’t think it’s any radical improvement, and I certainly don’t think it’s in any way bold, for all its diverse application. When a man blasphemes he is at least  - at some basic, pagan level – being bold. Spitting in the eye of the Almighty takes some gall. And in doing so, he never denies the existence of God; he is always open to conversion, if only in the vague acknowledgment of someone greater than he to curse.

But let us skip through the centuries to our Unblasphemous Age; our curses consist of the brave and daring crying out of basic biological functions, as if they were some horrendous actions that our grandmothers never performed. Though there are a few glorious outliers, our ‘bad’ vocabulary consists almost entirely of renaming excretion, urination, sex, and body parts. (That is not to say none of these words existed – sh*t has been around for a while – just that none of them were used as they are now; as curses.) These ‘renamed functions’ don’t exactly insult anyone, and they certainly don’t shake verbal fists at the Almighty. They are, for all practical purposes, rather weak. It may be too much of a stretch to say that we curse in the Age of Darwin; it is the the biological acts that we reverence enough to blaspheme, while we are too distant from Our Lord to stone him with a verbal rock. It is not too much to say that our four-letter words are pathetic excuses for blasphemy.

That’s the whole problem with modern vulgarity. It’s not that it says too much, it’s that it says so frightfully little. Perhaps you thought that I was going to write about that. Oh, my dear Patheos, ye have much to learn. Off the spring-board and to the point then:

If our culture and language do indeed have a marital relationship – as seen in our curses -how does our language account for our culture’s current and blatant adultery with relativism, that stupid idea that there exists no absolutes? I hold that our language reflects this idiocy in our embarrassingly awkward use of replacement words. I apologize to members of an older, more literate generation; perhaps you are not as exposed to the phenomenon of the middle-school girl, green and pink braces shining, informing the world that her boyfriend is, “like, so nice, you know? I mean he’s, like, the greatest guy you’ve ever met in the whole universe!” (That wasn’t satire, unfortunately.) For all you public school graduates; you know. The words of our relativistic culture reveal a timidity, a fear of absolutes, a cowardice over the prospect of committing oneself to a statement, perfectly mirroring our modern philosophy that shamedfacedly raises a hand and says, “What’s true for you isn’t true for me, so let’s all just get along.”

As an example, we have the widespread use of the phrase “I feel like” replacing the assertion “I think that”. This is particularly rampant within modern Christianity – “I feel like God’s calling me to break up with you”, “I feel like God doesn’t care about what you wear to church” – but it is as often used to preface everyday statements – “I feel like we should leave, those clouds look ominous”, “I feel like we should run, that zombie has a knife”. What does this dubious bit of slang do to our sentences? It emasculates them. No one can be blamed for a feeling, no one can be held accountable for it. Feelings are subjective. They are relative. No one can argue with the person who ‘feels like’ gays should be free to marry, any more than argue with the man who feels like a turtle. It is unarguable because it is insane. Intentionally or not, the widespread use of this preface fits right alongside our cultures liaison with relativism; it avoids the absolute in favor of the vague. It avoids the responsibility of a thought in favor of the helplessness of an emotion. Thus it is left to grumpy, stodgy, sarcatholic old men to call out this culture of wimps: “What, you feel like our government should help us? What kind of feeling is that? Does it make your spine tingle, that government-should-help-us feeling?” An on and thus forth, until their victim breaks down in tears, converts to a liturgical denominations, and takes grammar classes from a nun. (Which, in case you’ve haven’t noticed yet, I need.)

The sugaring of our language with the word ‘like’ is similarly relativistic. Besides the fact that it’s thrown into sentences with an anarchistic view towards the existence of intelligibility or the well-being of one’s neighbor, it performs the greater evil of making every statement a simile. “We, like, had no idea how to operate the shotgun.” This can only imply that the speaker’s lack of idea is simply ‘like’ something else. Again, the absolute is avoided. Or, in an alternative usage, we see it as a replacement for ‘said’: “I was like, we should just drop it and run.” No longer are we accountable for what we say, only for what we are like, and who on earth could blame us for something so vague?

Or take the delightful phrase, “you know?” This – of all our replacement words – is the most pitiful. It begs for agreement. It demands affirmation. It is a spoiled, little brat. “I got bitten, you know? And there wasn’t much I could do after that, you know?” One must assume that if the listener was to say, “No, in fact, I don’t know.” the speaker’s claim would be null and void. But the question is not really a question at all. It is a whine. It seeks validation of its speaker, not through the strength of the speaker’s content, but by the agreement of the listener. “You know” is the Unitarian of replacement words: “All we all happy? Alright, great.”

I maintain that it’s no accident that there is a stronger aversion to these words in Catholic circles than in others. It is because these words – intentionally or not – reflect our Great Foe: the tyranny of relativism. Language follows culture. God make haste the day when our culture might have the strength to be wed to a language devoid of cowardly interjections, a language that “lets our ‘yes’ mean yes and our ‘no’ mean no.”

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  • Fisherman

    Lets not forget Yosemite Sam who tried to keep “Jumping Jehosaphat!’ alive (Jumping Jesus?)

  • Joshua Nunson

    Great post, glad to see you on Patheos. Congratulations!

  • Pennylane26

    Fantastic article. I am certainly glad that you wrote this. I don’t know if I could come to the realization on my own and glad you are here to point it out. I will be sharing. :)

  • Warren Jewell

    So, it would seem, the adage ‘much ado about nothing’ has become a literal description of our language. ‘Nothing’ reflects anarchy, nihilism, ignorance and, in the modern strain on our communications with each other, relativism. How very fitting for relativism, where instead of abusing God we abuse His truth. And, we live in an earthly hell, already, where we are unlikely to understand each other, just as in The-Heat-Downunder.

  • Brandon Vogt

    ““You know” is the Unitarian of replacement words”

    I feel, like, The Trinity doesn’t exist, you know?

  • Anonymous

    Okay, so…you’re brilliant. I knew that!

  • Evagrius Ponticus

    Two thoughts, from clever people:

    “The art of advertisement, after the American manner, has introduced into all our life such a lavish use of superlatives, that no standard of value whatever is intact.” – The Doom of Youth, 1932

    “Words are the tools of thought”. – AP Herbert.

    I think there is something wider than mere secularisation – that is, the death of Western culture’s religious nature – going on, though. ‘Newtons sleep’ seems to be bringing with it the translatio stultitiae; but both spring first and foremost from sloth. Western civilisation cannot be bothered with the work of… well, being civilised, any more.

  • Elisabeth

    “Les zombies, ils ont dans l’ecole”, ou “Le zombie est dans l’ecole”, mais jamais “les zombies est dans l’ecole”.


    • enness

      What about ‘les zombies sont…’?

    • FrenchCanadian

      Non. “Les zombies sont dans l’ecole.” “Ils ont” means “they have”.

  • Mark Ferris

    My father likes to point out where I use the word ‘We’ when I really should be using ‘I”.

  • hartandhunter

    Very yes.

  • Sherry Early

    You have seen this poem performance by Taylor Mali, right? If not, I feel as if you should.

  • Father Denis Lemieux

    I feel like, wow, you know? Well said, well thought, well done!

  • Nate

    I am particularly irked by “you know” especially in an academic setting. I say grab hold of your idea and stick to it.

    Related is, “I know, right?” as if you need someone to back up the fact that you know something.

  • joan
  • Mlutz

    As my beloved bride of 40 years said a few days ago: “You know, you never know.”

  • enness

    By the way, I am stealing the term ‘sarcatholic.’

  • An even worse Catholic

    Should I like, like this?
    My poor daughter has heard me use all of the standard curse words but she has never heard me say God d***it or use Christ’s name as a swear. This might be my greatest accomplishment as a mother so far.

  • Anthony S. Layne

    “I feel like we should run, that zombie has a knife”. Perfect! You’re right, it is cowardly — a feeling is presumably neither right nor wrong, so we take our thoughts and turn them into feelings so we can’t be called out and made to justify them.

    I hadn’t thought of the actual strength of oaths as you’ve brought them forth, such as “Od’s bodkin” or “Strewth” (“God’s truth”). As far as cursing, I tend to agree with Tolkien’s description of orc-language: “Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt, too long removed from good to retain even verbal vigour, save in the ears of those to whom only the squalid sounds strong.”

    This is a great post, Marc! Look forward to seeing more from you!

  • Bruce Roeder


  • Alana de Kock

    At last, someone has outed the vacuousness of the statement “I feel”, when it has nothing to do with what the person feels. I noticed this shift in the last decade working with American colleagues….I am South African. I consistently edited it out of our writing, particularly academic publications.

    Maybe, that’s why, apart from the 2008 financial crisis, they like, retrenched me, you know?

  • Anonymous

    You need French grammar lessons taught by a French Jansenist nun who thinks those Calvinist Huguenots are pansies, because it should be “Tabernac, il y ont des zombis dans l’école” (“there are zombies at the school”). Also you misspelled the French word for zombie (which is older than the English one, voodoo is from Haiti) and forgot the acute accent in école.

    My other thoughts are that the homoousion/homoouision controversy hinged on, quite literally, people saying “like” when they shouldn’t. And that Japanese has the worst cussing ever—the only swear-word the language has is “crap”—but that’s actually because of their religion. One of Japan’s religious titles, within Shinto, is “land of the soul of language”; they take words very seriously indeed. For instance, “drop dead” is considered very foul language.

  • Butterflytoes

    Allo, c’est “Tabernac, les zombies sont dans l’ecole” Mon Dieu

  • Nothing

    That’s strange. When I was little, even though I know f*** was the worst curse word, I didn’t know what it meant. Since it was the worst curse word, I wondered what could it could mean – what was so bold and terrible that even mentioning it held that much stigma? One of my main suspicions was that it was something about hating God. When I found out, I was kinda (?) disappointed. The word just seems silly now.

    • Peppermint

      the worst curse word is ‘nigger’. i’m going to get banned for this

  • Zarchne

    ‘Sblood’ and ‘swounds’ are more properly described as “profanities” than “vulgarities”. In a culture without the sacred, profanity is meaningless.

  • Leopeter

    Loved your post!! :D I think this is a hilarious video along the same lines. Hope u like it!

  • Peter Uhel

    “Les zombies est dans l’ecole!” not correct, you need the plural of ‘be’ here, so:
    “Les zombies sont dans l’ecole!” :-)

  • Will

    “It is unarguable because it is insane.”

    Yeah, that tactic has been working really well for you folks. You just keep on insisting that gay marriage is impossible and insane, and I’ll keep contributing and lobbying until gay people are finally accorded equal rights. I mean, you have an absolute moral standard backed up by the most powerful, wise being in the whole universe, right? All I have is common sense and a moral relativist’s perspective on the world. You can’t lose! Right?

    • Mynamegoeshere

      The quote that you’ve based your comment on is taken out of context. The gist is that it is insane to argue against a person’s feelings because feelings cannot be helped. For example, I feel angry if I see someone slap a child, or kick a puppy, or throw away a perfectly good slice of pizza. No one would begrudge me my own feelings, saying “don’t feel that way”, because they know that feelings cannot be overcome by mere reasoning. Seriously, tell a pregnant woman not to feel emotional. What they can remonstrate me on is how I react to such feelings.

      It is not ‘insane’ to support gay marriage, and every decent Catholic will tell you this (despite our differences regarding the nature of such a marriage or the impact it has on society, child development, and, for the religiously inclined, what exactly a sacrament is).

      And, while I realize the it was meant to be sarcastic, I agree. We do have a moral standard backed up by the most powerful, wise Being in the whole universe (though we prefer to think of Him as the source of All Wisdom. And He is not exactly ‘in’ the universe, per se, but that is a metaphysical subect to broad to broach in a combox after all that I’ve already said.)

      Peace yo!

  • sophotera

    Thank goodness some of the comments have picked up on what a load of archaic drivel this is. Language is a part of our culture, whose development we should not try to curb. How would we have developed as a race over the past thousand or so years if this was the case?
    And next time you go about dismantling a well thought out philosophical argument which could explain much of the huge ethical differences between cultures, try to put in some actual reasoning. Simply saying that the argument that there are no absolutes tends to show a lack of thought about the matter.
    The “You Know?” chaps are a minority, led by Harry Redknap, you know? So I don’t think that there’s any need to put too much concern on that particular idiom.