I’m allowed two F-bombs per day while still maintaining my PG-13 rating. – J.B.
Having children has taught me many things – some good, some bad, some merely interesting. Among other things, I finally realized why my mom didn’t want me to swear when I was a kid. It’s not so much about the “bad” words themselves. It’s about not wanting to “that parent” whose kid has a dirty mouth. Knowing that people judge parents in part by their kids’ behavior, unfair as it might be, Jenny and I try to watch our mouths around the kids. But what is it about certain words that makes them “profane” and inappropriate for our kids to say?
I remember arguing with an agnostic friend in high school about the Bible’s guidance on profanity. He used to work really hard to get me to swear, but it hardly ever worked. He nearly had a heart attack once when I called him a dumbass.
“Where does the Bible say you can’t cuss?” he asked. The best answer I had was Ephesians 4:29: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Not bad advice, but it’s pretty vague, and it certainly didn’t convince my friend. Who defines what is foul? The Bible doesn’t seem to include an appendix with a list of banned words.
As I got older and less legalistic and uptight, I realized that there is no such list, in the Bible or elsewhere. Profanity is culture-specific, changes over time, and is highly dependent on context. What’s a cuss word in one context might be acceptable in another. Indeed, in certain situations, it might even be the perfect word to achieve the goal. Imagine John McClane telling Hans Gruber, “Yippie-ki-ay, Mr. Poopypants!” Sometimes nothing but a swear word gets the job done.
Out of order? Fuck! Even in the future nothing works! — Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs
The appropriateness of a word depends on three main factors:
Where You Are
For example, consider the word bollocks. In Britain, the term is a crude word for testicles. I didn’t even know what it meant until I found this site about British swear words. If I toss out the word here in Dallas, most Americans might think I sound quaint but won’t take offense. The word fanny is a generally acceptable term for one’s backside here in America, but in Britain it’s an offensive term for the vagina, a step below the dreaded C-word.
How Your Culture Uses and Interprets the Word
Words change in status over time as well as across the pond. Consider the word damn. Before Rhett Butler uttered his most famous line in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, the Hollywood Production Code banned the word from use in film. According to IMDB, an amendment to the code was required so that the film didn’t end with something underwhelming like, “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care.”
Now, you can hear damn on network TV, radio, school plays, and even church. It’s still not a “nice” word, but its usage has become much more acceptable. Same goes for piss, especially as in pissed off.
The meaning of words can change over time, too. The word ass once meant a donkey and was not offensive. I remember being in Sunday School as a kid with my King James Bible. We were reading aloud from Matthew about Palm Sunday. It was my turn. I surely turned red at Matthew 21:5: “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.” (Wow, the Bible says ass! And I just said it, too! In church! And I didn’t get in trouble. Whoa.)
In the 20th century, the word ass developed other meanings and variations that were considered semi-vulgar and had no relation to donkeys. Today I suppose ass is in the same category as damn: not terribly polite, but not one of the few BANNED WORDS that they don’t allow on primetime TV or radio. It’s even in the title of a movie, 2010’s excellent and underappreciated Kick-Ass.
What You’re Doing and With Whom
The situation might be the most important when determining the appropriateness of profanity. Dropping the F-bomb during the vows at one’s wedding would not be appropriate, at least in the weddings I normally attend. However, if a woman in labor accidentally let it out during a hard contraction, I doubt many people would care, even her saintly mother who had raised her not to talk that way and feels guilty herself for calling someone a dummy. Certain jobs, such as police work or military service, tend to have cultures that are more open to profanity than others, such as ministry or preschool education.
I rarely swear around my coworkers or friends. It’s just not my style, and I don’t want to offend anyone. I swear a little more around Jenny, especially if I’ve had wine. I swear to myself sometimes. Not sure why. Maybe it feels rebellious. Instead of giving bad drivers the bird, I’ll call them a rat bastard or a dumbass in the safety of my car. I’m such a rebel.
My current favorite swear word is badass, which is admittedly questionable at best. Hey, I’m still a rookie. Do you have a favorite?
Despite my youthful, goody-two-shoes misgivings about swearing, as a grown-ass man I have concluded that words are simply words. They have good or bad connotations based on how society perceives them in a given situation. In some situations, a good swear might be the best choice. Some studies indicate that swearing actually helps reduce stress. Just cover my kids’ ears before you let loose. I still have a reputation to uphold.