In Defense of the 4-Letter Word

This post was originally published at A Deeper Story on October 3, 2012

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The junior high boys swore under their breath, and I looked at them wide-eyed and appalled. I slapped their hands, half-chastening, half-flirting, said, “You shouldn’t say that!”

Once, the skinny youth group drummer, fed up with my judgy stares, challenged, “Where does it say in the Bible that you shouldn’t swear?” And I went home and combed carefully through my concordance, searching for scriptural justification for my moral high ground.

To my surprise, the word “swear” was only mentioned with regards to vows. And though there were a number of verses about words of malice and slander, about corrupting and foolish talk, about gossip and anger and carelessness, there was nothing specifically about curse words.

I wrote it out anyway, this vague list of Bible verses related to words, language, the mouth. I used my neatest handwriting and filled two sides of a sheet of notebook paper. And when I handed it to Skinny Drummer Boy during youth group that Sunday morning, his jaw dropped, like he couldn’t believe I was for real.

I was.

So committed was I to swear-less speech, that I made it all the way into my 20s without uttering a single “curse word.” I even endured the heart-wrenching end of my first serious relationship without uttering so much as a dammit.

But then my life spun a little bit off its hinges, and I was reeling in the darkness. And as I tried to navigate my way through it, I found that darn it was no longer the honest response. Shoot didn’t really cut it. Where the heck are you God wasn’t really what I wanted to say when I screamed into the quiet.

The right words were the ones that I wasn’t “supposed” to say, and they cut to the heart of my pain like arrows. They said it exactly right.

*

I learned somewhere that the Greek word the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians 3:8 can be translated as shit. He’s trying to create a jarring perspective between the things he has lost and the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ.” As in, “It’s all just a bunch of worthless shit compared to what I’ve gained.”

It makes sense to me that he would use that word. It makes sense to me that in trying to get to the shocking hard truth of it, he would need to use the sharp word. The strong word. The one that’s a little bit dirty around the edges.

And I think that the curse words themselves are not actually the problem. It’s our misuse of them. It’s the way we overuse them, throw them away. It’s the way we lob them angrily at one another like grenades. We do this over and over, and we turn them into blunted, powerless things. And that, most of all, is the problem.

*

The dictionary definition of profane is to treat something with abuse, irreverence or contempt, and so I would argue that a word only really becomes profanity when we forget the weight of it. When we let our mouths run three miles ahead of our brains. When we are careless and abusive with it.

Any time I use a four-letter word to hurt another person, it is profane. When I let it drop carelessly from my lips in frustration or irritation, I am using it irreverently.

I am really good at recognizing the difference when I’m writing. The typing slows me down, causes me to think, allows me to decide whether this is really the right word here, and if it is the right one, to use it boldly. In my speaking I rarely give it that kind of thought, and words fall profanely from my lips before I can stop them. (Now that the kids are starting to repeat every.single.thing, I’m going to have to start myself a swear jar.)

But, here, I think is where we miss it: it’s not just curse words that can become profane. It can happen to any word. It’s possible, I think, even to make God-talk profane.

When we say the easy thing instead of the true thing. When we slouch into Christian cliché instead of listening. When we give the easy answers, dismiss one another’s pain, idly make promises that we have no intention of keeping — all of that is language abused, defiled, tossed away.

And upon hearing of a friend’s cancer diagnosis, I might go so far as to suggest that it’s more profane to say God never gives you more than you can handle than it is reach across the table, grab her hands, whisper the word fuck.

*

In the end, the best last word I can find about the whole thing is Colossians 4:6: Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Not a command so much as a blessing. We are all living these fragile lives, and there are no perfect words. Just grace, seasoned with salt…and maybe the occasional four-letter word.

May the God who made the mouth, the heart, the wide complex world and all its language give us the courage to speak it true, to speak it in love, to hold our words like glass.

  • http://ecclesiaextraneus.wordpress.com Matt

    That is a great article. I remember talking to some Greek scholar types about Skabulon in Philippians 3:8, and they started cussing when I suggested that it could be translated as a four letter word. They had no problem with cussing obviously, but they had a problem with using Greek words wrong. Apparently, the word there can’t mean just human refuse, because there were other words for that. It means anything and everything that can be considered unwanted, disgusting and gross – vomit, feces or any creature, broken stuff, clothes with funky things growing on them, anything that would be discarded as worthless by the people. Translating as just human refuse takes away from the power of the word in their mind.

    Anyway, that was a side tangent. I didn’t grow up in church, but schools always have their clean language policy and my parents just didn’t cuss at home. I used to try to force it during high school but figured out it wasn’t “really me” so I quit (mostly). But to this day it still feels more natural for me to say “shoot” or “darn it” than to cuss in intense situations. Just stuck with me I guess since my days of public school. But in college when I did get involved in church, they always wanted me to tell my “testimony” about how God cleaned up my language. Because apparently I stand out when I say “oh shoot” after dropping a couch on my toe. They would always get mad because my testimony had nothing to do with God but just an overzealous public school system. And especially since I could and would never make a case for cussing being a sin from the Bible.

  • Lee

    to be far, that Paul used the word for refuse does not mean he used it in the context of “O S—” And he didn’t use it to shock or vent. It was just the word he needed, and I doubt it sounded vulgar to his audience which “s—-” has a way of sounding.

    All this reminds me a little of Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees not to reinforce oaths with “I swear by… God’s throne, e.g.”. This was “oathing” not swearing but seems to me the point is considered restraint. That said, I have a few words at the ready which have become standbys and which I think I’ll keep to myself in public!

  • Addie Zierman

    Thanks for the clarification. I knew I could count on you pastor-types to set me straight. :) I figured that it was probably only one translation that spread like wildfire among those of us who love to drop a good 4-letter-word every once in a while (see! Paul did it!).

    I guess it feels like a peripheral matter to my argument. Whether or not Paul actually said the literal equivalent to “shit,” I still think that there is a way to use it when it’s not profane but enlightening. Maybe even a little encouraging…like someone saying, “You don’t have to clean up your act or your language to come to God. You just get to come.” Like someone saying, “I recognize you are in an extreme amount of pain and I lament that with you.”

    But, then, this is mostly not how we use these words. We mostly use them off-handedly, carelessly. I want to learn to use them so sparingly that when I do, it makes people sit up and pay attention. Know I really mean it. (But that’s going to take a lot of time and grace and a lot of quarters stuffed into my Swear Jar. :))

  • Mia Hinkle

    Growing up, barely an eyebrow would raise if we muttered the word “shit” in frustration, but it was clearly not allowed to scream “SHUT UP” at one another. My mom would have loved this essay.

    • Addie Zierman

      See, that makes sense to me. :) Thanks for sharing Mia.

  • http://laurenwlutz.wordpress.com Lauren L.

    A few years ago, a man was speaking to a group of mostly Christians about matters of preventable death of children. He followed up a horrific statistic about death by starvation with the statement, “And I think that’s pretty shitty. …And you know what I think is worse? The fact that many of you are more offended that I just said ‘shit’ than you are that thousands of children are dying unnecessarily.”

    Yup.

    • Addie Zierman

      Yes! Someone shared that story over in the Deeper Story comments as well. A perfect example of what I’m trying to say. Thanks for recounting it here.

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  • Gwen

    Apparently I’m late to the party, Abbie, since everyone else’s comments are 2 years old! I found this because of “the Deeper Story is closing” post. And I have found you at all only recently, but what a gift. I am a generation ahead of you and grew up with many of the same parameters with their insistent associations to God. Reclaiming God for oneself on the backside of that, becomes a piece of work–a work of God’s great Grace. You are courageously living out that beautiful story here before us. I applaud you–and I imagine Paul does too. He would have LOVED you!

  • Gwen

    Sorry, ADDie, not Abbie!.I know better. Just not paying attention. :)

  • http://expressionsofarestlessmind.wordpress.com Emily Simmons

    Yes. Thank you. These ideas have been floating around in my head recently…but I have not developed them much past “It sounds stupid when my peers drop the f-bomb every other word.” Thanks for a more nuanced exploration!

  • Anya

    Several months after I found out my (christian) husband of 37 years was having an affair, (quit his job, moved to the far side of the country, cut off all contact with me and most with our 4 sons) Reeling in the shock of betrayal, deceit, abandonment, and all that entails I visited a new doctor. New to me, new to our small town, new to my story. I explained my current stressors, things affecting my health, the pending divorce especially. His response, “F…k ’em!”
    For the first time, somebody said it! Got it! Felt it with me, for me. Offended on my behalf. Many wonderful friends, family and counsellors helped in many ways, but his sentiment came at the right time and in the right way for me. So F#%*+k ’em and Bless them… Truth in every part is blessing. Yes, bless them.

    • http://howtotalkevangelical.addiezierman.com/ Addie Zierman

      Yes! Thanks for sharing this story. “So F#%*+k ’em and Bless them… Truth in every part is blessing.” — YES.