Those Damn Four-Letter Words

Those Damn Four-Letter Words January 22, 2013


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!



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