in which I weigh in on the topic of profanity

I’ve been thinking lately of the topic of profanity.  I have a weird history with it.

I grew up in a home where “shut up” was strictly outlawed and, if uttered, would result in Mom scraping a bar of soap across your teeth.  My undiagnosed OCD latched onto this sin, and I spent some of my younger years tormented by swear words lambasting my mind.  I remember feeling sick and sinful and guilty, and I would confess to my mom that I was “having bad thoughts.”

Years and years later, OCD had strengthened its grip on me like a vice, such that I conditioned myself to “counteract” these bad thoughts with a repetitive prayer.  It started with curse words (most especially the f-bomb) but also words that sounded like curse words (class, bit, switch, luck, etc.) and eventually any word that started with the f sound.  All of these would trigger my compulsive prayer (so that I would avoid the intrusive thoughts the words would also trigger).  I remember one day realizing just how far it had gone when I walked by a stranger who was lightly biting down on her lower lip, and I started praying (for, of course, that is what your mouth does when you make the f sound).

In 2008, I underwent cognitive-behavioral therapy, during which I had to listen to an audio recording littered with curse words, as my doctor attempted to re-wire my brain (with success!).  I didn’t know what my conservative family would think of this therapy, but my mom was supportive and understood this was essentially my last chance to get my life back.  I didn’t talk details with my dad or sister, but my brother was disgusted when he heard about my therapy.  He was really disappointed in me, but I knew better than he did that this necessary.

CBT broke the spell for me around profanity.  For the first time in my life, I could hear it without an overwhelming reaction.  I could even say those words!  They found a home in my fiction as I realized how they added an element of realism to my story.

I do not have a filthy mouth, not by any means.  But after a lifetime of assigning too much meaning and influence to profanity, I have now found freedom from that and power over it.  It doesn’t bother me to share a curse word with a friend either in a joke or for emphasis.  I feel like I’ve escaped that cage I was in.

The other week, I used the phrase “time the hell out” on my blog, and my sister called me on it.  It bothered her, and she let me know.  We were at our parents’ house, and Mom said that profanity in my stories didn’t bother her, but it did in my real life.  My sister said both were an issue for her.  I told them then that neither bothered me and that I even felt a little profanity actually worked well for a powerful emphasis when needed and that it could even improve my witness as a Christian because I didn’t seem so much holier-than-thou.  They disagreed, citing verses like, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.”  (The version of scripture I read is ESV, which reads, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths,” which is a more literal interpretation and one that doesn’t particularly strike guilt in me.)

I do believe it wrong to use the Lord’s name in an offensive way.  That one does grate against me.

Personally, I choose not to say things like “holy cow” or “holy buckets” or any one of the slew of phrases people use in this way.  This is, to me, more offensive than profanity.  I think that language that tears someone apart is more unwholesome than words we have a special veto on simply because they are pronounced differently than their “approved” synonyms.

What are your thoughts on this?  Both sides are welcome.

15 thoughts on “in which I weigh in on the topic of profanity

    • I know you do, Momma! You’re such a good sport with me, your over-the-top daughter! I think that sometimes you worry about me but that you know I love Jesus more than anything or anyone, so then you relax. Am I right?

  1. I hate hearing them, too. It was especially painful when my kids were young and in public. Older guys I worked with in the Park Service were careful about there language when around visitors. The young guys did not watch their mouth anywhere. Once wrote a tract about it

  2. When I was in a script writing class at Northwestern there were two extremes, those who are so sensitive to any course language they were out of touch and those who swore every other word to prove they were cool and relevant. Both seemed wrong.

    Language is a tool and sometimes these harsh words are a way to communicate effectively, though I think that overuse can quickly become abuse and a crutch for poor communication skills.

  3. Very thought-provoking post… I was actually talking about this with a friend a few weeks ago. One of the books I read for my grad class was littered with profanity–the F-bomb appeared once, if not twice, on nearly every page. I was telling her how this was shocking to me, but she defended it, saying that it makes sense if that fit with the character. In the case of that book, it served no purpose–it didn’t add to the character, it was for no dramatic reason, it was simply there. There was no edification. In that case, I hate profanity in literature. However, my friend’s point was good; I do agree that profanity has it’s place if it adds to the realism of a character/scene. I still have yet to use profanity in any of my writing, but I’m coming to understand its usage in reading/writing.

  4. I just heard a fabulous verse from a very wise girl (!!!!) 1 Corinthians 8:13. I’ve been struggling with this lately, because it seems all of my co-workers swear ALL THE TIME, and its starting to get into my head, and I don’t like that, so when i saw you swear on your blog, it made me kinda sad. just saying…….

  5. Hi Jackie!

    Just wanted to contribute the conviction that foul language is still foul, and that I have found it very insightful that when people are conveying anger, searching to express how they feel, profanity often is not far from their minds–myself included.

    I think we are better to treat it as less of a big, bad evil, (like the encouraging way in which you described how their stigma and power left you), and more of an insight into what is going on in the human heart. In flowing from the phrase “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

    I do think that my words words have never been curse words, but words flowing from a heart which sought to curse, to kill. So, how legalistic is the idea that a “curse word” to be railed against, and a cold nod given to a heart full of curses?

    Thank you for making dialog happen about this. “Arbitrary” is a dirty word, when we apply it to God. I am blessed by spaces to process like this.

  6. Hey, Jackie!
    I too struggle with this issue among non-Christians who question why I swear sometimes. In the Bible it mentions to not curse your neighbor, which I was told that means not to wish them harm, not “cursing” as we know it today. It also says not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Those two things I consider swearing. But if you consider the origin of “swear words” as we know them today, they have been largely defined by society, not by the Bible. If we think about it, who decided, and when, what words are not appropriate? And why? It doesn’t make sense to me that those words would be “off limits” for Christians, when they have been defined as “bad” by society. Now I’m not advocating that you should curse at your mother or drop the f-bomb at an interview, because that is a matter of respect and decorum. But, I believe strongly that the words society has determined are off-limits has no basis in anything and really if you’re not using the words to be disrespectful or hurt somebody they are just words. End rant.

  7. Pingback: More Thoughts on Profanity [& how ERP therapy changed my writing] | Lights All Around

  8. When I started reading the Bible and didn’t know the God of the Bible, I became so afraid of disrespecting God and blaspheming the Holy Spirit that my thoughts were cluttered with f-bombs and wicked images, often sexual in nature. I didn’t grow up in a religious or particularly strict environment, but after I started reading the Bible and straining in my own effort to clean up my act, my brain latched on to the f-bomb in particular and even hearing words that started with f would trigger a barage of thoughts like you described. I felt like I was drowning.

    Thankfully, that season is in the past. Nowadays, I love to journal, and I allow myself to use profanity there because I want to know what’s really in my heart. I have compulsively filtered my true emotions for most of my life for various reasons, so being honest with myself and God is really important. I find myself in denial sometimes when I feel hurt or weak, so it takes me a little time to find the real me, and if profanity is there, I want to know. I don’t use profanity publicly, and eventually, I am hoping I won’t need it anymore because I’ll be more like my heavenly Father who I believe doesn’t use it, but for now I’m not majoring on the minors. And for someone who has struggled with legalism, I also considered it a victory of sorts when I felt free enough to curse and not condemn myself for it. Everyone’s relationship with God is unique.

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