on the (in)significance of swearing

“Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.” —Shakespeare

Last month the Wall Street Journal reported on a new fashion trend— skinny jeans for babies. I’m not sure what to do about the diaper.

But this week they reported that jeans manufacturers are getting more aggressive, and more risqué in their marketing. The images have been there for a while, but now it’s the language.

Old Navy has a “booty reader” to help you pick the best fit for your behind. Lee jeans are using Mike Rowe, from “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Channel, to describe his own hindquarter with slang.

And Levi has trumped them all with the “A” word, in department stores everywhere touting their ID line. Shame on them. I hope it’s offensive enough to hurt their brand. But I’m not holding my breath.

It seems to be getting worse, but in an opinion piece today, The Decline of Cursing, Jan Morris says bad words aren’t working anymore, so we are using them less. They just don’t offend us anymore. In her view:

A religious reference used to give a curse or an oath extra authenticity, but today most of us don’t for a moment hesitate to take the name of God in vain, and anyway most of the sacred content was long ago elided into the language.

It makes me glad that God still defines what is sacred, not Jan. But the F word is broken too in her view, since it is so common. She says: “It has become, in the lexicon of scurrility, a word without meaning.”

No one even notices, she says. She is wrong about that.

But I will give her this, some of these words have lost their meaning. And that’s why we notice them.

There is nothing more pathetic than someone trying to borrow the shock value of coarse language, or borrow the authority of holy language, simply because they lack the vocabulary to explain what they actually mean or feel.

Morris, for example, wants to come up with new curse words, based on our obsession with the computer and the internet. “Blog off,” she suggests. See what I mean? How pathetic is that?

I think this is what Jesus is talking about when he says not to swear at all, but to let your yes be yes and your no be no. It’s not just that you shouldn’t swear, but that you shouldn’t have to.

Think about it. Morris can use a phrase like “lexicon of scurrility.” Why does she need new swear words? Or any swear words at all?

You Nguyen, apparently does. He’s head of women’s merchandising and design at Levi’s, and he ought to lose his job; not just because the campaign is offensive to many people, but because the language is lazy and inarticulate.

According to Jesus, swearing isn’t necessary. What you could do is just say yes or no, and have the integrity to pull it off. No fear, shock, or stupidity required, just the reputation of men and women who keep their word.

Or hold their tongue.

10 thoughts on “on the (in)significance of swearing”

  1. I remember when I was a teenager your dad preached a message on this subject. His point was similar in that he said that our character itself should be enough to back up our statements. It has stuck with me all this time.

  2. Amen!
    (I’m not being lazy. That says all I want to say. I’m not being inarticulate. That says all I need to say. Is my reputation on the line? I hope so. Some may say I’m being offensive because that is a ‘religious’ word that I am putting in front of them. Ok, so be it! I’m going to keep my word.)

  3. I am reminded of my French & Brit lit days, skimming through Century-old works and trying to understand “La Vie Inestimable de Grand Gargantua” and his monstrous foul mouth as he delicately describes using a down goose to whipe his “A!” Or perhaps describing the indelicate nature of the our Good Sister Madame Eglatine in the Cantebury Tales.

    So I ask myself, ‘is any of this really new to anyone?’ Not really. Even our most popular word, “F*ck” according to the Oxford English Dictionary could be derived from a 16th Century word of Germanic origin. Should we be so enlightened to cling to our linguistic roots?

    Alas, it is deeper than ‘that.’ It would seem for many, swearing repesents an inability to grapple and communicate instinctual, human emotions in an effective and articulate manner – but for others, like Rabelais or Chaucer, it would represent a firm grasp on language and emotion. Almost a ‘linguistic dexterity.’

    I would contend that the vulgarity or impact of swearing is only as severe or shocking as the one from whose lips the words stream. Therefore, the value we place in a word is only as valuable as the person speaking.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful response. I love your conclusion, the “the value we place in a word is only as valuable as the person speaking it,” which I think is mostly my point. Swearing says something about us, and mostly something about our limitations.

      I’ve not addressed this in a literary context, although I suppose you could think of advertising as a form of art. But representative as opposed to gratuitous seems like a thoughtful approach. I have a colleague is probably more thoughtful about this than I am, and wrote an essay on the Sacred Use of the Profane. I think you might enjoy it.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  4. I’m only going to comment on your opening salvo. Saturday Night Live did a commercial parody a season or two ago for “diaper thongs” to eliminate the unsightly bulge created by diapers.

    That and thanks for posting Dr. Patton’s essay.

  5. Well said, as usual. And for the record, swear words are still offensive to me – the F word in particular.

  6. I very much enjoyed this post. I was brought up that swear words were “inappropriate,” until I got to college, where a little less than a third of the population uses a swear word occasionally, or a less offensive substitute. It was almost a grown up feeling, if you will, having progressed from “Darn it!” to being able to say things like, “Dang it!” instead of its more offensive curse.
    What do you think about Christians and swearing? Is it better to “tame” our curse words? We probably shouldn’t say these things at all, but how then do we express emotions and feelings we cannot otherwise intone without the use of a strong word? Using a lesser word undermines the gravity of the feeling. Perhaps silence is better?
    It does bother me when others swear around me. I actually had a mental buzzer go off in my head, subconsciously editing the speaker.
    Thank you for writing this post. I appreciated it.

    1. I think language is a good place for Christian to demonstrate a thoughtfulness that swearing seldom communicates. And of course, some language is clearly proscribed—such as taking the Lord’s name in vain.

      But again I think Jesus was pointing out unnecessary it should be, given that our word is our bond.

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