In Defense of the 4-Letter Word

I’m over at A Deeper Story today writing about language, swearing and what makes words profane.

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. (Continue reading here.)

  • 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.

  • 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.”


    • 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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