Some time back I wrote a little piece on swearing and vulgarity

Some time back I wrote a little piece on swearing and vulgarity August 25, 2016

You can read it here as background to what follows.

Scripture has very serious things to say about swearing.  It has far less serious things to say about vulgarity.  That’s because Scripture is primarily concerned with taking the Name of the Lord in vain, not with Puritan hangups about the fact that we are animals who excrete waste and engage in sexual reproduction. And Scripture has virtually no interest in English class structure, which is what drives much of our thinking about vulgarity.

I take swearing–the use of God’s Name in vain–very seriously.  I regard it as the verbal equivalent of mortal sin.  So you should not “swear to God” every time you say something for the reason that you should just tell the truth in the first place without calling God in as backup.  Still less do I toss around “Oh my God!” as a catchphrase for surprise or amazement.  And the invocation of God so that you can say or do evil is the ultimate abuse of the Name.

But vulgarity? Meh.  I think it’s a triviality, a venial sin at best.  I have a friend who is Marine whose language is full of this salty billingsgate and he would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.  Vulgarity is, at best, a venial sin in most ordinary conversation.  It can, of course, be deployed as a weapon of hate in some contexts, but the main sin is the hate, not the crude word.  And far more serious sins of malice–for instance, gleefully rejoicing that a good Catholic mother of 10 has been deprived of food for her children’s mouths–can be committed by thin-lipped little Pharisees who would never say “fart” or “shit” but who will indeed invoke Jesus’ blessing on their vicious acts of spite.

Speaking of which, one of the measures often put forward by people whose grasp of Catholic history extends to the Baltimore Catechism and “Going My Way” is the argument, “Would a saint talk that way?”  Well, here’s St. Thomas More sparring with Martin Luther:

Come, do not rage so violently, good father; but if you have raved wildly enough, listen now, you pimp. You recall that you falsely complained above that the king has shown no passage in your whole book, even as an example, in which he said that you contradict yourself. You told this lie shortly before, although the king has demonstrated to you many examples of your inconsistency ….
But meanwhile, for as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity’s shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown divested of the dignity of the priestly crown, against which no less than against the kingly crown you have determined to play the buffoon.
In your sense of fairness, honest reader, you will forgive me that the utterly filthy words of this scoundrel have forced me to answer such things, for which I should have begged your leave. Now I consider truer than truth that saying: ‘He who touches pitch will be wholly defiled by it’ (Sirach 13:1). For I am ashamed even of this necessity, that while I clean out the fellow’s shit-filled mouth I see my own fingers covered with shit.

A couple of things worth noting here.

First, the attempt to say this is a “bad translation” is belied by the fact that More himself acknowledges that his own language mirrors the “utterly filthy” language of Luther.

Second, it is clear that what More considers *truly* filthy is not shit, but lies and heresy: that is to say sins of the intellect.

Third, the reality is that neither More, not anybody else in that time period (or in the time stretching back to St. Paul, who spoke of his life before Christ as “skubala”) gave a shit about shit.  Because the organic was not a big deal.  It was crude.  You shouldn’t use such language in polite company as a general rule, in no small part because it betrayed a lack of imagination.  But when you were pissed at Judaizers or heretics in their obstinacy, it was not that big a deal either.

Indeed, the translators of the King James Version saw no big deal with using the common slang referring to a male heir as “he that pisseth against the wall” (1 Kings 16:11).

And the rest of literature from pre-Calvinized Christendom is much of a muchness, whether from Boccacio or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath or Shakespeare, the rowdiness and bawdy of Catholic lit is just not all that concerned about vulgarity.  It is not until Calvinism reintroduces a kind of resurgent gnostic suspicion of the body as somehow vile that we begin to see the notion that the mention of merely bodily functions are elevated to “swearing” in the biblical sense of the word.  It is a classic example of a human tradition being elevated to sacred tradition.

And it traces back, not to Scripture primarily, but to the Norman Conquest and the Reformation.

Vulgarity, especially in English, denotes class.  And that class distinction traces directly to the winners and losers of the Norman Conquest.  Latinate words bespeak power, breeding, wealth, and education (itself a Latinate word).  Anglo-Saxon words bespeak lower class.  So a noblewoman would expectorate, menstruate and copulate, while her serving wench would spit, bleed and… well… you know.

Later, with the Reformation and the Calvinist work ethic and notions of “election” and God blessing the rich, that would all get worked into a nice gooey ball pietized into the service of exalting the upper over the lower class and into confusing the triviality of vulgarity with the serious sin of swearing.  And so, in English, “swearing” and “vulgarity” are usually the same thing.

And so we arrive at an age where St. Thomas More would be considered ineligible for sainthood if the St. Blog’s League for Moral Purity were screencapping his work for a Stream hit piece.  Not because he broke a commandment, but because he failed to keep the conventions of a Puritanized American Right Wing Catholicism.

Now, I don’t think More is without fault in that passage.  His sin is one I am very familiar with: writing with anger that passes from love of truth to passion against one’s neighbor.  But that is the real problem, not the fact that he said “shit”.

Does this mean we should go ahead and pepper our speech with vulgar expressions about our excretory and reproductive systems?  No.  Scripture does, in fact, counsel against coarse language.  But Scripture also counsels against other relatively minor sins.  And it links all of it to the great commandment of love.  Depending on how the quicksilver thing that is language is used, a vulgarity can be a weapon or a blessing of love and camaraderie. I have friends who hail one another as “you son of a bitch” and there is in it a love full of a friendship so deep they would die for each other.  A person who sees only scandal in the use of Bad Words in that is, in my view, tone deaf to the gospel.  On the other hand, exactly the same words can be used as prelude to a murder.  Very often, the meaning of the same words changes like night and day depending on whether we fill them with love or hate.

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