I "hell" and "damn" occasionally. I don't think of them as swear words, though I know that many around me do. If I hit my finger with a hammer, I'm likely to say something slightly stronger, and I've been known to refer to an idea as horse manure. In both cases I use the Anglo-Saxon term for manure instead of the Latinate one. I do think of that as a swear word, though I couldn't say why one is and the other two aren't. I don't use profane language often, but certainly more often than most urban or suburban Latter-day Saints (Mormons).

Farmers and ranchers are another category, and I suspect that I don't compete with some of them. My grandfather—a farmer, not a Mormon, and not much of a curser around the house—told me that cattle and pigs require a different language than everyone else. From what I could tell, he was right.

So I swear sometimes, but like most Mormons I never use words referring to Deity as interjections or expletives, as many do regardless of their religious commitment. I remember coming home from school when I was a sophomore in high school after picking up my friends' habit of using the word "god" as an interjection. I did so once or twice at home and my mother said, "Mormons don't do that." I stopped, deeply embarrassed.

Neither do I use what we euphemistically call "the f-word." I'm sure that is probably partly a sign of my age. Over time, new profanities replace old ones. If they didn't they would lose their status as profanity. Whatever the most commonly used profanities were when I was younger, that word wasn't among them. It was at or beyond the limit of what a person could say even when being profane, and it remains that for me. So I can't imagine using it, nor can I overcome my gut reaction when someone else uses it, not even by reminding myself that profanity changes.

People often say there is more profanity today than there used to be. I'm skeptical. The perception that there is, is probably an effect of the changes in profane language: words formerly taboo are now used as "ordinary" profanity, and the profanity of yesteryear has become tame or disappeared.

I'm shocked when I hear the profanities of high schoolers—but I'm supposed to be. That's the point of profane language. (Or it is used to show how grown up and independent the speaker is?) I'll bet my mother was shocked by the profanities of my high school friends. And I'll bet that the use of profanity was as widespread among them as it is today. The fact that 19th-century LDS Church leaders frequently warned against the sin of profanity is good evidence that it has been common for a long time. (See, for example, Orson Pratt's sermon on 10 February 1856 [Journal of Discourses 3:298].)

Since once in a while I use "hell" or "damn," when it comes to profanity I'm probably slightly off-center compared to other Latter-day Saints. But like most of us I don't use profanity much. And, like most Mormons, I am uncomfortable when others do more than a little helling and damning. I'm particularly uncomfortable when people use words referring to the Father or the Son as expletives or interjections, or when they use the f-word.

For me and other Mormons, both of the latter illustrate the very meaning of the word profanity: they make common what is sacred; they take what ought to be treated with reverence and awe and make it into something ordinary at best. That makes us uncomfortable. Sometimes, though I suspect not as often as non-Mormons might suspect, it can also offend us.

Many understand the third of the Ten Commandments—that we are not to take the Lord's name in vain—to be a commandment not to use his name as a profane word, but that's not what the commandment says on its face. At face value, it tells us not to dishonor God or our covenant with him. It is a commandment to continue to be in sacred relation with the Father. However, it isn't much of a stretch to move from understanding that we ought not to dishonor either him or our covenant to thinking that we ought not to use his name and its variations in ways that suggest disrespect or irreverence.

For Mormons that short stretch was institutionalized in 1914. In an editorial in the LDS Church's official magazine, the First Presidency, led by Joseph F. Smith (nephew of Joseph Smith and, at the time, president of the Church) said: "the too frequent use of the name of Deity, even in our prayers, is to be avoided; that Name is holy, and the Lord will not hold guiltless one who uses his name lightly or in vain" ("On Titles," Improvement Era vol. xvii, no. 5 [March 1914]). Having been baptized "in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost," I have an obligation not to profane those names.

5/18/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Speaking Silence
  • Covenant
  • Language
  • Profanity
  • Mormonism
  • James Faulconer
    About James Faulconer
    James Faulconer is a Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, where he has taught philosophy since 1975.