What is the difference between cussing, swearing, and cursing? Beyond corrupt speech, do we really have the power to curse other people?
It’s October—almost time for holiday movies! One of my favorites of all time is A Christmas Story, where Ralphie gets in trouble for using foul language he learns from his father. Ralphie’s dad uses a string of nonsensical jibber to rival Yosemite Sam. Some call it cussing. Others call it swearing. Still others call it cursing. Is there a difference between these three?
Many think the word “cussing” is just “cursing” with a Southern accent. I maintain that the two are different. More on cursing later. Cussing is when you say those no-no words that your mama taught you not to say. The ones that would upset your grandma or make the preacher turn red. The ones you learned from your dad while working on the car, or from your grandfather who was a sailor. The words uttered by the kids in the back of the bus or in the locker room. In “Can Christians Curse? What the Bible Says…” I write about the origins of cussing—why we think some words are good and others are bad:
It all comes from a class distinction in England. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE, the Old-French-speaking Normans mixed with the Old-English-speaking Britons. Old French was influenced by Latin, but Old English was influenced by German. The Norman nobility looked down on peasants who continued to use Germanic-based words. They believed that the Germanic-based language was “vulgar” (which means “of the crowd”). In English, our offensive language mainly comes from that Germanic base, which is considered vulgar because it’s the language of the common people. It has nothing to do with obscenity, and everything to do with cultural snobbery. This is why, for example, you can use a word like “doo-doo,” but not its alternative.
Some languages don’t even have “cuss words,” because they aren’t bastardized tongues like English. These “pure” languages don’t consider certain words profane and other words acceptable. Instead, if someone wants to say something offensive, they have to get creative. Like, “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!” Even without “cuss words,” their language can be just as vulgar. Once, I knew a man who grew up in church and refused to cuss. Still, he could say the most disgusting things in creative ways, without ever using a word of profanity. In “Does Cussing Make You a Sinner, a Hypocrite, or Just More Real?” I discuss whether it’s a sin to cuss. I invite you to check it out.
A lot of people call cuss words “swears” or “swear words,” mistakenly thinking that cussing and swearing are the same thing. When a novel says, “With an oath, he struck her…” the author is confusing the concept of cussing with swearing and oath making. What the author really means is, “He cussed, and struck her.”
In reality, they are quite different. Swearing is a way to convince someone that you’re speaking the truth. We swear informally in casual speech. We swear formally in courts of law. Certain people take oaths of office or oaths of loyalty. We make vows at weddings. Clergy members often make vows in their ordinations. These lend a sense of gravity to speech.
Swearing, taking an oath, or making a vow are all the same things. In ancient times, people swore on something greater than themselves. “I swear to God,” or “I swear on the Bible” are a couple of examples. They thought that this great thing would have the power to enforce their oath. Alternatively, they swore on something that they didn’t want to lose, superstitiously believing that if they broke their vow some calamity would befall the thing they didn’t want to lose. So, they might say, “I swear on my mother’s life,” or some such thing. Jesus addressed this in Matthew 5:33-36 when he said:
Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Throughout the centuries, many Christians have gotten around this by simply saying, “I promise” instead of “I swear.” Or, they might say, “I affirm” instead of, “I vow.” This is mere semantics. Jesus meant that our speech should be of such integrity that we don’t need to use such language. Our word should be enough. Rash vows can get us into trouble—just ask Jephthah in the Bible.
We often say that “cussing” is the same thing as cursing. I promise you, they’re different. In “Can Christians Curse? What the Bible Says…” I give four examples of corrupt speech that has nothing to do with cussing:
- Lying. Proverbs 10:18 says, “Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.” This is not only dishonesty about another person, but dishonesty about how you feel. God wants integrity, meaning our feelings and speech must match one another. Proverbs 12:19, 22 says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment… The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 19:9 says, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will perish.” God isn’t just concerned with making sure you are honest with yourself—God wants us to be honest with each other and about each other. Even for those who think they can get away with dishonesty, life has a way of bringing truth and its consequences to those who deceive.
- Gossip. Not everybody who gossips is a liar. Sometimes gossip is true—but just because it’s true, that doesn’t mean it needs to be told. Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.” Bible teacher Greg Laurie suggests that before you spread gossip, you need to T.H.I.N.K. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say is True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind. If not, keep it to yourself.
- Mocking. Proverbs 14:6 says, “The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” Mocking is when we use our words to tear other people down. It’s like the emotional bully who calls names because he can’t use rational language. Typically, mocking uses words we generally consider offensive to a person’s ethnic, cultural, sexual, or gender identity. The opposite of mocking, of course, is knowledge and discernment.
- Troublemaking. Strange as it may seem, sometimes lying, gossiping, and mocking are not always intended to harm people—they just somehow do. But troublemaking is when you are intentionally trying to harm another person. Proverbs 6:12-15 talks about, “A troublemaker and a villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks maliciously with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict. Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” Notice how the troublemaker uses not just their speech, but their whole demeanor, to stir the pot? Sometimes they can say one thing with their mouth, and another with their body language—masking their culpability with intentional deceit.
Cussing does far less damage than the curses of lying, gossiping, mocking, and troublemaking. We curse other people when we use hurtful and destructive language like this. Instead, God wants us to use the power of our speech for good. In a sense, when we use this type of language against others, we are cursing them. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words have the power to kill. Cursing is a deadly power, without ever getting into the question of supernatural cursing as a phenomenon.
But, what about this other meaning of the word “cursing?” Beyond corrupt speech, do we really have the power to curse other people? Do human beings have the power to speak supernatural curses, like in the Bible? I invite you to check out my next article to find out. It’s Halloween time—no better time to talk about throwing curses than now!