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Monday, January 3, 2011

Mouse ----! You Understand Mouse ----? or Thoughts on Cussing

Over the years, I have seen a few blogposts dealing with the subject of cussing, or foul language, mostly from Christian perspective. As a matter of fact, I can't recall any post on the subject that wasn't trying to approach it from a Christian perspective.

I have to tell you right up front that I was in the United States Marine Corps Reserve for five years, and at one time, I possessed the usual unmitigated fluency in cussing common to most U.S. Marines. It is, however, very rare that I cuss these days. Cussing events are mostly of the I-hit-my-thumb-with-the-hammer sort. That may color your opinion of what I have to say or it may not, but at least you know.

I have thought about writing this post a million times, I think. Just about every time, a memory has come to my mind, a conversation I once had with a sanitarian, or "health inspector," as you may call them. Y'see, I was in the fast-food business for about fourteen years, and was on friendly terms with several of the city's sanitarians. One time, one of them was explaining some of the difficulties that they occasionally had with ethnic residents. He gave me the example of a time that he found mouse droppings in one Asian-style restaurant, a place where the staff was all from overseas and had a very limited command of English.

"You have mice. You need to call the exterminator."


"You have mice. Look, you see? Mouse droppings."


"Mouse droppings. Mouse dung."


"You know--feces."




"MOUSE ----! You understand MOUSE ----?!"

The man did indeed understand, "mouse ----," as it turns out.

My question for you is: was the sanitarian cussing? Or communicating?

I don't think the difference is always quite so cut-and-dried as some people like to think.

Usually, when the question of cussing or foul language comes up in Christian circles, people opposed to cussing--that would be most Christians I've met--will cite Paul's admonitions to avoid "filthy talking" or "coarse jesting."

And let me make something clear before I go on: I regard the Bible, including Paul's letters, as the word of Almighty God. I absolutely will tell you that Paul said exactly what God intended him to say, and that it means what it says.

On the other hand, I've read multiple translations of the Bible, and I have yet to find any one of them that gives me a crystal-clear definition of what "filthy talking" and "coarse jesting" are. We have Ephesians 4: 29, which says, in the NKJV, "Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers." The NET Bible renders it, "Let no unwholesome word..." The ESV, my favorite translation, has, "...corrupting talk..." Then there is Colossians 3:8, which reads, in the NKJV, "But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth." The NET Bible renders it, "...abusive language from your mouth." The ESV has, "...obscene talk..."

What exactly is a "corrupt word" or an "unwholesome word" or "corrupting talk?" What exactly is "filthy talking" or "abusive language" or "obscene talk?"There are a lot of people who seem to think it's the content of George Carlin's infamous list of the words you can't say on TV. I don't think it's quite that simple.

It's fairly obvious that when writing in Greek, Paul wasn't spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxonisms that hadn't yet been invented.

It's fairly obvious that it's not the objective meaning of the words that is being referred to. You can say, for example, "manure" without anyone in the world accusing you of cussing, right?

Some folks--including some for whose opinions I generally have very high regard--make an argument that basically amounts to this: Every culture has a list of words that are commonly accepted as being foul. We all know what they are and what they are used for, and it is to this list, at least in part, that Paul refers. Therefore, Christians shouldn't use the words on the list. And to a degree, I agree. There are indeed words that are commonly accepted as foul, the recognized use of which for many, maybe even most people, is to express displeasure, anger, hatred, bitterness, and so forth, precisely the things listed in Col. 3:8. But I do have a small problem with this idea: the list isn't universal, not even within the same country. It changes. It changes over time--I can easily think of words that were completely unacceptable 20 years ago that I now hear on family tv and radio. It changes with age--there are some words that I would never have gotten away with when I was five that nobody would bat an eye at were I to use them as an adult. It changes with your company--please believe me, Marines routinely use words that most people would consider foul with no hostile or foul intent whatsoever, considering them merely, as Spongebob might say, "spicy sentence enhancers." It changes with your education and level of knowledge--as shown in the sanitarian's example given above. And it changes with your personal background--I know more than a few people from rural backgrounds that think nothing of talking of pig ---- or cow ----, etc. To them, it is simply something you shovel out of the barn.

Personally, I think that to get a good sense of what "a corrupt word," "corrupting talk," "unwholesome words," "filthy language," "abusive language," and "obscene talk" are, you have to look to the context of the Scripture. To my mind, that sort of language is language that corrupts a person, imparts nothing good, expresses (perhaps especially intentionally) anger, malice, and so forth. It is language that is intended to hurt or to degrade, and while people may and often do use words on "the list" to do these things, it is not a word's presence on "the list" that makes it foul, but the way it is used.

Having said all that, I still avoid the words on the list. I do that because so many people, hearing them, automatically assume less than wholesome intent on the part of the speaker, and I don't wish to unnecessarily upset anyone. But I have a hard time, a very hard time indeed, coming down on anyone just for using words on the list.

Before I do that, I need to know if they're cussing or if they're communicating. Are they trying to abuse or degrade or offend me, or is that simply the way the people around them talk?

You savvy?
And don't get me started on "minced oaths." When people not only don't want you to use the words on the list-of-words-that-we-as-a-culture-have-agreed-are-foul, but don't wish you to use words on the list-of-words-that-we-as-a-culture-have-agreed-are-socially-acceptable-substitutes, it seems to me that a double standard is being exposed.

Just my two cents, y'know?

1 comment:

  1. In the case you quoted, I think that clearly he was communicating and not cussing. That story reminds me of a story my mom used to tell about my grandfather. He was a doctor in PA and had man Amish patients. One day he was with one such Amish patient and while inquiring about the man’s symptoms he asked “How’s your bowel movements?” The man didn’t understand and after trying a variety of other descriptors finally said “How’s your s---?” To which the man smiled and responded “S---‘s good.” I don’t think either man was cussing in the least. Much of the time I think that the use of bad words should be judged in the context of the situation. In these cases, it clearly wasn’t cussing.

    Great post by the way!