Those Damn Four-Letter Words

In case you missed it, and I hope desperately that you did, I was on Patrick Madrid’s radio show yesterday afternoon after stepping into the middle of a little Twitter dust-up over female Catholic bloggers cussing.

Naturally, I was defending the practice of cussing, because I ♥ that shit. Also naturally, I was mostly incoherent through the steady stream of “ummming” I was doing. It’s been years since I regularly had intelligent conversations that required quick thinking (with my mouth, not with a keyboard), so I also failed to make the most important point about this whole issue.

I assumed that what we were talking about was preference. Cultural sensibility. Whether or not these words are acceptable in the everyday lexicon of the average Joe. Patrick himself, in his initial tweet, wasn’t talking about right or wrong but preference. He doesn’t find it “attractive” when women swear. That’s a matter of preference, not objective morality.

But when Patrick opened the show, he began talking about it in terms of sins. I wish I had caught it then, because I believe the conversation that followed would have been much more fruitful if we had started with an important distinction. The most important distinction that needs to be understood in the context of language.

God gave us the gift of language. Language is a beautiful, even sacred, thing. The universe began with language. “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word. That’s Christ. Our Savior. God’s only Son. The Word.  That is how important language is. So when people take the use and abuse of language seriously, I get it. I’m there, man. I like slang as much as the next person, but ignore the Oxford comma or text me with single-letter “words” that resemble nothing so much as an illiterate Egyptian’s hieroglyphs, and I will not be a happy English major.

But although God gave us the gift of language, he didn’t give us the languages we use. Those are all our creations. Every word I know in my native tongue and even the ones I mangle in French and Italian are man-made. They have no meaning in and of themselves, save the meaning we give to them. Most of them are some sort of mash-up of Old English and Middle Low German or any of the other dialects that have fallen out of use. “Crap”, for example. Certainly one of the milder cuss words, and although I personally don’t consider it cussing at all, my mom still drops her voice to a whisper when she says it. That word, at least the American usage of it, comes from Thomas Crapper, the man who made a killing after he designed the ballcock system for toilet refilling and installed his top-of-the-line toilets all over Britain. Obviously, the word refers to feces. People rarely object to the word feces. But then, we don’t use feces as an exclamatory outburst. “Oh, crap!” can regularly be heard in my house when I knock something over or put my hand down on a hot burner. But I’m not literally talking about feces. We all understand this. If I replaced “crap” with the less offensive “feces” my meaning would be the same: “I am surprised and angry that I was stupid enough to put my hand down on this clearly glowing burner and now my hand will hurt for the rest of the evening. This sucks.” That’s what is summed up in those two little syllables, “oh!” and “crap!” It’s remarkable, isn’t it? You could replace “crap” with anything, and it would have the same meaning, but it wouldn’t have the same connotation. Someone on the radio show suggested saying “oh biscuits!” Okay, but why? That’s a completely random word that doesn’t actually mean what’s being conveyed that’s been chosen to replace another word that also doesn’t mean what’s being conveyed. What you lose in that trade is the connotation. “Oh, crap” = something bad has happened. “Oh, biscuits” = ?

Unless we all start saying “oh biscuits” as a society. Then, eventually,  it would take on the same connotation as crap. And then you would have a radio show where someone would call in and suggest saying the neutral word “crap” instead of the offensive “biscuits.”

See what I mean? Words are tools. There are no words that are inherently bad. And yes, even “goddamned” isn’t an inherently bad word. “Sodom and Gomorrah were Goddamned” is a true and accurate statement that is neither blasphemous nor sinful. What makes words bad or good, objectively, is how we use them. If a teenage male says to a teenage female, “gee I sure would like to squeeze your biscuits”, then he’s taken a neutral word and used it in a degrading and insulting manner. It’s not the word that’s bad, but the use of it.

Which brings us to the important distinction of cussing vs. cursing.

Yesterday, I said that Michael Voris’ assertion that only a faithful Catholic could be unselfish was a steaming crock of shit. That was cussing. I was using the word “shit” to describe his assertion. Maybe it offended people, but it wasn’t a sin. If I had said, “Michael Voris is a steaming crock of shit,” that would have been cursing. And that would have been a sin.

When the Bible talks about cursing and foul language, I believe this is what they are talking about. We’ll never know for certain, because those authors were writing for a completely different time. But I believe that’s what they were talking about because they were talking about sin. And sin is not dependent on cultural sensibilities.

When Shakespeare was writing, his use of the word “Zounds” caused great scandal, because it was a terribly blasphemous word meaning “God’s wounds.” I said “zounds, zooks!” this morning when I was playing with my 2 year old and his cars, and I’m positive that even someone extremely sensitive to swearing wouldn’t have blinked an eye at that. That’s because our cultural sensibilities have changed. That’s not a bad thing, by the way, and it’s not a thing that can be stopped. Language evolves whether we want it to or not. That’s the point I was trying to make on Patrick’s show about my own use of cuss words. It might be offensive to some, but unless I’m cursing someone with them, it’s a morally neutral choice. It certainly does not make me a bad Catholic. I certainly do not run to the confessional every time I stub a toe and mutter a four-letter word under my breath, no matter which four-letter word it is. 

What about giving scandal, you ask? I believe that giving scandal is a hysterically overly-used default setting that is roundly abused in the blogosphere when someone disagrees but can’t make a coherent argument as to why. However, I suppose that the use of gratuitous “bad” words, however morally neutral the words themselves, might cause scandal in certain situations. If I were to run into the middle of St Peter’s and start shouting every dirty word I ever learned at the top of my lungs, that would be scandalous. But in that situation, my intent would be to scandalize. I would be willing to bet that any situation in which true scandal is given by the use of cuss words is created intentionally. Situations like teenagers or young adults cussing prolifically in front of elementary-school children, for example. Or a conversation loaded with one-sided profanity with someone well-respected at a formal venue. But a blogger (even a female one!) tossing off a four-letter word every other post? Every post? Even twice a post? Nope. Not scandalous. It may offend someone’s sensibilities, but it’s not a scandal. Here’s the definition of scandal, from the OED:

Scandal, n: an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage

We’ve already covered the fact that the mere use of a cuss word is not morally wrong. It simply can’t be, anymore than using scissors can be morally wrong unless you’re using them to stab someone. So is it legally wrong? Maybe in certain situations, but not in blogging.

“But it causes general public outrage!” some of you might be shouting at your computer screens. Maybe. But there’s that pesky conjunction and. Not or. It has to cause general public outrage and be either legally or morally wrong to be a scandal.

“That’s the OED, though, Calah. Not the Church. You need to address what the Church means by giving scandal.” There, I defer to Mark Shea’s excellent treatise On Giving Scandal. “But what concerns Paul is a different kind of skandalon: where the weaker brother is tempted not to judge others, but to violate his own conscience.”

I cannot even conjure up a situation in my overly active imagination where my use of the word “shit” would cause someone else to violate their own conscience. Truly, I can’t. I just don’t think the “giving scandal” argument has any weight when it comes to prudent use of swear words. Just because someone is offended by a word doesn’t mean the offender is morally responsible for it. I’m offended when my 12-year-old cousin types “U r a BAC AUNT LOL BFF 4EVER”, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to have to answer for irritating me in the afterlife.

And however scandalized some of my readers might be by some of choice expressions, that is never my intent.

I really do love certain cuss words. “Hell” is a particular favorite of mine. So is “shit”. And nothing has quite the same pizazz as a well-placed “asshat.” And yet, you don’t see blog posts from me chock full of profanity. This post has more profanity in it than I usually use in a month. When I use those words, it’s because of the connotation they have. It’s because there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about them in whatever sentence I happen to be constructing that cannot be duplicated by using another word. I know this, because I always reach for the less offensive word first, particularly because I know some people are very sensitive to cussing. (Sorry, Mom.) I strongly disagree with those who say that using those words means I can’t think of another way to express myself. I can think of other ways, but no other way would express it just right. A less colorful, less accurate word chosen solely on the chance that the word I mean might offend someone doesn’t cut it for me. In fact, I love language enough to say what I really mean and not dance around it with lackluster substitutes.

For me, using swear words doesn’t degrade the English language. I believe it enlivens it. We call them “colorful words” because they add color! They grab our attention! They have that shiny allure of the forbidden because it isn’t proper etiquette for a child to use such words, so naturally we grow up whispering them to our friends when our parents’ backs are turned. They’re exciting words. As someone who truly loves language, I couldn’t possibly shelve words so rich with connotation just because they might offend someone. Wine offends some people, and can be abused, and can even be used sinfully, but I don’t hear cries for Catholics to put down their beloved grape. Catholicism offends some people. Quite a few people these days, actually. So should we drop this papistry stuff because it offends a large majority of the secular culture?

Say it with me: Hell, no!



  • Ian Rutherford

    But what is gained by coarsening the language you use? Do you gain some extra expressional ability by regularly using cuss words that you would lack if you refrained? Is language elevated and society refined by swearing?

    It seems that the use of cuss words in general leads to a shrinking of vocabulary as we resort to a list of about ten words for every outrage, insult or exasperation instead of actually making use of words that aren’t offensive and much more accurately describe a feeling or situation. I think your defense of swearing as adding color to a language rings hollow. There is a reason that throughout most of history these words (in whatever language) were considered appropriate for “lower society”. It is only our enlightened age that has abandoned every semblance of restraint and respectability where such things as swearing regularly in public by both sexes of pretty much any age has become acceptable.

    I think one thing to consider is if the way you say something shows respect for God. Would you swear to Mary? Would you swear to Jesus? Do you think that either of them resorted to whatever Aramaic equivalents were around at the time?

    Here is an interesting article on the topic:

    • Ian Rutherford

      As a followup thought, the use of the word “Hell” in casual conversation is a wonderful way to trivialize the reality of the place. Telling someone to “Go to Hell” or that something “hurts like Hell” makes Hell into a silly phrase instead of the worst possible place we could end up. The same with any variation of “God damn”. God damning is serious business, not something to use in a casual conversation about the 49 victory over the Falcons.

      • calahalexander

        I agree with you about God damn. I don’t think that should be used ever, unless you’re really damning someone in the name of God, in which case…boy, I don’t want to be next to you when the lightning strikes.

        • bill bannon

          I’m a cradle Catholic who thinks the Second commandment is really about VOW KEEPING AND OATH TAKING….not words like shit which are not good but offend charity venially…very venially…but where is our sense of proportion. Catechisms aimed partly at children have resulted in Catholic adults losing the main point of the Second commandment: VOWS. We have a high divorce (and annullment rate…maybe…unless every case is one of radical immaturity) and Patrick Madrid is calling you out on bad words instead of holding a symposium on the annullment or divorce rate…the real core of the Second Commandment.

    • Ian Rutherford

      Back again with another thought on using cuss words involving sex and human body parts. Sex, love and complimentarity are some of the most wonderful things God gave us as humans. Why would we make use of words that were intentionally created to denigrate those things, even if we don’t intend them in the same way?

  • Pingback: The $*(#$ing Power of Vulgarity

  • Alicia

    Not cussing falls under the courtesy heading for me. I don’t teach my kids “good” or “bad” words, but rather to think of how our words could make anyone uncomfortable or otherwise cause another person pain. I also think that by avoiding the use of cussing that it helps to calm a situation down. If I can pause and find a different way to express a gut reaction I am already on the road to diffusing the situation. I also don’t think cussing is a gender specific issue. I get irritated when I hear my husband cussing – it always seems to escalate his level of frustration. But, like any other issue, I can see how personal experience can shape our worldview. I am an adult child of an alcoholic and words were used to abuse and control. I probably overcompensate as a result.

  • jen

    Word, Calah.

    • calahalexander


  • Jo

    Awesome post, Calah. My largest objection to cussing is that it tends to be a wide gateway into flippancy or casualness-and by that I don’t mean the good kind of ‘familiarity’ that is needed to have a good and meaty conversation. I have a similar pet peeve with sarcasm and how pervasive it has become as a mode of communication in our culture. It has become such a phenomenon that seriousness and intentionality have become the exception, rather than the rule, which is problematic. I think my sentiments grow largely out of my experience of working closely with college students over the past few years, where hearing loose fragments of discernible speech sandwiched in-between endless cascades of “f&%k” is the norm. I think that these kind of habits significantly affect how well people engage with reality, often in less than charitable ways. That’s my take, at least.

    • calahalexander

      GOOD point. I could do a whole post unpacking that. Just because something isn’t inherently wrong doesn’t mean it’s not potentially problematic.

  • federoff11

    My main issue is not with words that are used for “poop” and “pee” but all of the horrible words for the marital act and female/ male genitalia. Those words just take something beautiful and coarsen it. Especially the words for female anatomy. BUT, using your logic, they enliven our language. Where do you draw the line? And how do you draw it?

    The way it was explained to me, in Mark 14 Peter curses and swears to show how far away he is from God, THEREFORE he cannot be one of those nasty apostles that the Roman are hunting down. When we curse and swear, we do the same thing… try to distance ourselves from God with an appeal to “fit in” to the culture. (Oh no, WE couldn’t be one of those nasty self-righteous Christians… look how we use cursing and swearing!)

    • calahalexander

      Perhaps I should have said they can enliven our language. Actually, I definitely should have said that. I don’t use the crude words for female genitalia because of their connotation. I draw the line based on my own sensibilities and what I’m trying to communicate. I don’t believe I’m ever excessive or grossly offensive in my language. As I said, I try to reach for the less offensive word first. I think it’s quite a stretch to say that I’m trying to distance myself from God by cursing. If I were, I wouldn’t be blogging as a faithful Catholic. I wouldn’t struggle to remain faithful to the Church’s teaching on birth control. I wouldn’t be raising my kids Catholic. I wouldn’t have converted to this beautiful faith in the first place. It would be much easier, and I would doubtless be much more successful, if I distanced myself from God and blogged as a part of the culture. I don’t think you have to swear. If it bothers you, certainly you shouldn’t. I also don’t think not swearing makes you a prude, nor does finding swearing distasteful. It just makes your sensibilities different.

  • John C. Hathaway, OCDS

    “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” Doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. When you use the “d” word and the “H” word out of their proper context, you are engaging in cursing–ergo, witchcraft, prayer to Satan. Consult an exorcist on this matter. One of the number one causes of demonic oppression and possession is the use of profanity.
    No word is intrinsically evil, true, but the *use* of a word is evil when it is used for evil, outside of its proper context, such as when a human being takes it upon himself or herself to declare something damned or to consign someone or something to Hell. That is blasphemy, as you are taking to yourself a role that is properly God’s.
    Jesus clearly teaches that to use certain words in anger is a violation of the fifth commandment (Mt 5:22).
    Ultimately, the “need” to express violent emotions with violent words reflects a lack of inner peace or forgiveness.

    • Anon.

      So your suggestion, Hathaway, is that we should stick to the “proper context” in our uses of words in order to avoid sin (and possession!). I’m going to assume “context” will stretch to include things like metaphors and such, provided they are “proper” in their form, i.e., they are in fact metaphors (or, in this instance, synechdoches) and not poorly constructed mixed metaphors–for it’s widely known that the easiest way to be possessed by bad writing is to create mixed metaphors!

      So let me try the following, and you let me know if I’m understanding you correctly:
      Ass=Donkey; Donkey=an animal that brays loudly and annoyingly while making no sense; ergo, an animal that brays loudly and annoyingly while making no sense= an Ass.
      Furthermore, by that lovely trope of synechdoche, we might reasonably refer to one thing via reference to another, such that “hat” can be understood to refer not to an accessory worn on one’s head but rather to the head itself.
      Thus, we can reasonably assume that a man (being himself an animal) who uses his head to bray loudly and annoyingly while making no sense=AN ASSHAT.
      Quod erat demonstratum.

      NB: don’t take an article of faith as one of the premises of a syllogism, Asshat.

      • John C. Hathaway, OCDS

        1) To use the “sh” word when actually referring to excrement is crude. To use that word in reference to another human being is, according to Matthew 5:26, a violation of the Fifth Commandment.
        2) To refer to a donkey as an “ass” is not a sin. To refer to a person as an “ass” is a sin for the same reason.
        3) To refer dogmatically to Hell or damnation, or to warn a person, ‘that course of action will lead to Hell” is fine. To say, “Go to Hell” or “Damn you” to another human being, regardless of the context, is to violate not only the 5th but the Third Commandment.
        4) “Giving scandal” is not just an “easy out for people who can’t make an argument.” It’s a basic principle of Catholic morality that doesn’t get taught much anymore in CCD or RCIA but is front and center in most pre-1960s moral texts and catechism texts. I’ve always said, since I was a kid, that swearing is one of the *worst* ways to give scandal, precisely because it’s such an easy sin to commit. I’m sorry that the authoress doesn’t feel the need to confess her swear words. Habit does mitigate personal culpability, but one must still struggle to overcome bad habits. I try not to swear, and I used to take great pride in never swearing, even when quoting, but I have in adulthood lost my temper from time to time and resorted to this practice–because I have those nasty words in my head because I’ve heard other people use them.
        4) If there’s something wrong with using articles of faith syllogistically, then blame Thomas Aquinas, not me.
        5) Again, a “casual swear word,” like stubbing one’s toe and yelling “D– it,” is a curse–you’re putting a curse on the piece of furniture or whatever. Instead of using your words for the constant state of prayer we are all called to, you are using your words-and words are powerful (this is why as Catholics we have liturgical prayer and standardized devotions like the Rosary)–for evil. Fr. Amorth has some issues about expressing opinions beyond his scope of expertise, but when he talks about exorcism, I take his word for it, especially as the things he’s said match up to what I’ve heard from other priests and from laity who have worked with exorcism teams. Cursing breeds demonic oppression. Period.

  • Corita

    I have made a distinction for my children between colorful language and those words which are historically meant to put people down. Otherwise, they can all end up under the heading of “bad words” and then the child who likes to push the envelope, say, by saying “bad words” and then they will say the n-word or the b-word or the f-word…and they all have different meanings and impacts, but all the kid knows is they are BAD! And adults JUMP when you say them!! snicker.

    • calahalexander

      This is a great idea. Certainly I don’t use those words because of the connotation they carry, something most commenters seemed to have skipped right over. Unfortunate, as it is crucial to my argument.

  • Karen

    My objection to swear words is I really think using them diminishes your message. I guess I was just brought up or somehow absorbed the message that using swear words is the lazy way out of expressing oneself. So when I read an article, no matter how logical or well-reasoned, if it’s peppered with swear words I tend to take the writer and the message less seriously.

    Not that I have never used swear words. I had a horrible potty mouth when I married my husband–I chalk it up to formative years spent listening to George Carlin–who yes, was funny but foul-mouthed. His best routines were actually the ones in which he didn’t swear, like “Ice Box Man” or “Interview with Jesus.” However, I cleaned up my language after getting married and having kids. It’s just not cute to hear your toddler say “damn.” My husband was not inclined to use swear words–and by not inclined I mean he rarely, if ever, swears. Maybe he says “crap.” He has to be really, really angry to use any words like that. So I have come to associate those words with really horrible anger and they bother me a lot now.

    I think using swear words, rather than bringing people together, can put barriers up and cause people to not listen to your core message. That’s just my take on it. I think there are more elegant, powerful words to use in the English language than the vulgar.

  • Bryan

    “A man curses because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind.” -Malcolm X

    I try (unsuccessfully) not to curse, but I also make a point of not using the words “love,” “hate,” and “need” casually. Casual use of “love” and “hate” is a pet peeve of mine.

    Not using “need” superfluously is really tough. Kind of says a lot about our modern culture that such is the case. You’d be amazed at how much you have to re-structure your daily speech (mindfully, and for the better, in my opinion) by not using the word “need” for every little trivial thing. I was taught in first grade that human beings have only five true needs: food, water, clothing, shelter and companionship. Everything else is want.