I grew up in a home where “heck” was a bad word. And “dang.” And “gee.” And “gosh.” Heck, after all, was just code for “hell,” and dang was code for “damn,” and gee was code for “Jesus,” and gosh was code for “God.” And thus they were all off limits. Shoot was about the only word that was okay, which is weird because I’m pretty sure that if the other words are really code, that one’s code for “shit.”
When you’re not allowed to say even the most innocuous swear words, you have to get creative. Which for us meant a whole lot of saying “oh my goodness” or “good gracious.” People who overheard us in the grocery story or at the library must have thought we stepped out of the wrong century!
We learned to get around the strict rules in other ways, too. For example, we found that you didn’t have to use swear words to cuss out a sibling. It’s totally possible to be extremely hurtful without a single word that’s not standard English. Not using swear words didn’t mean we didn’t ever tear each other down with our words. It just meant that we had certain words to avoid and certain rules to follow.
The weird thing is that my parents always told me that it was the heart attitude that mattered rather than outward appearances, and that the “spirit of the law” mattered more than the “letter of the law.” Somehow this didn’t apply to using swear words. Swear words were bad, no matter how they were used, and using one of them in any circumstances, no matter how innocuous, could get you punished.
When I went to college – and a state college at that – I received quite the education. Just walking on the sidewalk between classes was eye opening. And one thing I learned was that swear words weren’t always used against people. In fact, I found that, on the college campus at least, swear words weren’t generally used to tear people down but rather simply as a normal part of conversation. And quite frequently at that.
I also found that there were swear words I had never even heard uttered before. “That sucks” was incomprehensible to me. What did it even mean? And I must say, I had a bit of a surprise waiting for me when I looked up the word “fuck” in the dictionary. I’d never heard it before, and had no idea what it meant. This was one of those words, though, where context was ultimately more helpful than a dictionary definition.
It took me a long time to grow acclimated to the constant use of words I had been taught were so taboo. Now some who still adhere to the views my parents taught me about “bad language” might say that my “growing acclimated” to it was a problem. But the thing is, like I said before, what I was growing used to was not the use of these words in hateful ways but rather merely their use as a normal part of conversation.
What I’ve come to realize is that the specific words that are used is less important than whether words are used to hurt others. The problem doesn’t come in with the use of swear words. The problem comes in with the intent to cause others pain. As I learned growing up, you can cause others a great deal of pain without every using swear words, and as I’ve learned since heading away to college, you can use swear words without ever causing an ounce of pain.
The issue isn’t what words you use. The issue is what you use your words to do.