On Swearing

I don’t often swear, nor am I offended by it. Simone’s latest post has some choice words in it (choice not in the New Zealand sense but in the “offensive to people who don’t like swearing” sense).
She speculatively mused on Twitter that this might offend some people. It probably will. And using such language will always do so. My thoughts on swearing are probably best expressed in list form…

  1. Swearing is not always “unwholesome talk”
    Language changes with time. “Bugger” would have been incredibly offensive 50 years ago, it’s not now. But saying inappropriate things about one’s mother will always be “unwholesome”. Language moves and evolves. It’s stupid to have hang ups about particular words.
  2. Swearing is about intention, not about content
    One thing I’ve never really understood is people who take a moral stand against swearing but use a substitue word like “sugar”. The intention is exactly the same. Who cares if one word means faeces and the other is a product of refined cane – swearing is about intent. You’re just as guilty either way, you may as well not look like a self righteous prude while being guilty.
  3. Swearing is usually grammatically and contextually innappropriate
    Honestly, the words that we most commonly “swear by” are pretty lame and can only be applied appropriately in limited circumstances – they describe body parts, bodily functions, excrement, and the act of procreation – there are only limited circumstances where these words can be used appropriately. There is an interesting, but highly offensive, documentary cartoon floating around detailing the myriad uses of the “f” word – that show that its definition has been allowed to creep too far. I’m all for swearing – provided the usage is justified both situationally (for shock value/catharsis) and the word usage is correct
  4. Swearing for the purpose of offense is wrong
  5. Swearing for the purpose of expression is lazy
    There are better words available. Use them.
  6. Swearing in the presence of those offended by swearing is wrong
    For Christians swearing is a food sacrificed to idols deal – it’s not wrong in and of itself but it’s wrong because people think it’s wrong


Mark says:

Regarding 5. – the Aussie habit to not let a sentence go by without almost every noun or verb preceded by the expletive of the day grates… it’s inane, wastes time and adds nothing to the communication. When it’s the same select few words every sentence it doesn’t even convey any change in depth of emotion or state of mind.

[…] four letter words July 21, 2009, 1:09 pm Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Culture, Sin Like Nathan, I’m not much of a […]

Amy says:

It is a really interesting subject this – especially as what is considered offensive changes from generation to generation (or even quicker). A lot of quite offensive words now were considered normal 1 or 2 hundred years ago. The word ‘crap’ (in my experience) is quite normal to my generation, but still gives my mother-in-law a bit of a shock.

Number 2 is a really great point, I have never thought of it like that before.

But, re point 5, I think sometimes this is part of the charm and character of a dialect. The Aussie use of bugger as some sort of catch-all is really fascinating and unique.

There has also been research recently that found that swearing upon feeling pain was actually quite effective at relieving some of it.

Nathan says:

“There has also been research recently that found that swearing upon feeling pain was actually quite effective at relieving some of it.”

Yeah, I was going to mention that, but I was blogging and working simultaneously – and the work won out.

“Also, in the poem that initiated this post, there is no other word that would be as effective at communicating its meaning. Swearing used right is an effective tool of language.”

Completely agree. I’m fine with swearing provided it doesn’t violate any of my reasons not to.

Amy says:

Also, in the poem that initiated this post, there is no other word that would be as effective at communicating its meaning. Swearing used right is an effective tool of language.

simone says:

I think the poem needs that particular word. For those with a personal understanding of screwey familyness (which the poem is about), to hear it expressed like that is satisfying and even edifying.

Wonder if I did lose any readers…

only me, Simone, but I got bored after about 5 minutes and came back.

By the way ‘refined cane’ is totally going to be my new swear word of choice.

Kutz says:

Hey Nath,

I agree with most of your points, I think, but it seems to me that the rest of your points actually inherently disagree with your point #2.

What do you think ‘swearing’ is?

Because if you think that it is sensitive to language and context, and is a communication thing, then point 2 doesn’t hold.

Nathan says:

Yeah, I can see how it would look contradictory – I think I would have been clearer had I distinguished the verb (swearing) and the noun (swear words).

In fact, even the verb is misleading – because there’s the act of using “swear words” and the act of “cursing” where whatever word you use is a “swear word” in essence.

Kutz says:

So what’s your problem with someone screaming out ‘sugar’, when they hit their finger with a hammer? (apart from sounding like a twit, that is)

Nathan says:

That’s where you have to consider the intention. That’s my argument. Words don’t count. It’s what you do with them that matters.

Kutz says:

I wonder if a more accurate description of your position is actually “Words do count, and what you intend by them also matters.”

Also, I’m not so sure what your problem is with vocalising a negative thought in front of someone else (using your definition of the intent of swearing, and that you said you wouldn’t say ‘sugar’ or ‘shit’ in front of your grandma if you hit your thumb with a hammer). Why not? What if someone died? Would vocalising a negative thought about that event be ok?

I really don’t quite think I understand your point about the ‘intent’ of swearing and what you think is wrong with it.

I ought to reiterate that I heartily endorse most of the other points you make, and am enjoying interacting with you intellectually again. :)

Nathan says:

I think I’ll address the “intent” thing first.

My thinking is mostly Sermon on the Mount driven – thoughts being as bad as doing the deed type stuff – I fail to see how thinking “curses” but sweetening it with “sugar” is different from thinking “curses” and expressing it as “shit”…

I’m not really against vocalising negative thoughts. I’m against using swear words that offend people for the purpose of offense. It’s a contextual thing. I’m against swearing that doesn’t work in context as language.

Verbalising disappointment is ok – I just don’t think sugar coating it is all that useful. I don’t think it serves any purpose – because when someone says “sugar” I think “oh, they mean shit but they’re not willing to say it”.

Nathan says:

And – for those wondering where my gran made an appearance – it was in this conversation I had with Kutz on gmail…

me: did my last comment on the swearing thing make sense?
Kutz: Have you responded to my response?
I haven’t checked after my second comment
me: basically I wrote the post because of the hypocrisy of people who say “sugar” when they mean “shit”… and think they’re somehow absolving themselves of wrongdoing.
I think hang ups about particular words are unhelpful and it’s more the action that’s problematic
Kutz: Yeah, that’s the position that I find interesting, actually. Why do you come to that conclusion? What’s the problem with exclaiming when you’re in pain?
me: nothing
Kutz: (While I agree, to an extent, about the hangup with words)
me: I have no problem with exclaiming, I have no problem with appropriate swearing…
I think, unless I am mistaken, that saying “sugar” is just sugar coating your internal though – it’s a curse in the same way that “shit” is – and it becomes a question of intent… and then I reckon the whole “if a man looks lustfully he’s committing adultery” kind of issue – a sin of thought…
if swearing is indeed foul language – and I’m not sure I think the Bible is talking about swearing when you hit your thumb with a hammer
Kutz: What do you think a curse is though?
me: more the second batch of swearing
the vocalisation of negative thoughts about a particular thing
when I say second batch – I mean the second half of my post
like using language to shock etc
Kutz: Now I have your definition of swearing, I reckon I can think about it more. Will get back to you on the blog. :)
me: I think Paul’s “considered them dung” and “filthy rags” are examples of using “swearing” appropriately
Kutz: I think that you’re wrong when you say that the particular vocalisation doesn’t matter.
me: not that it doesn’t matter, so much that it needs to be sensitive to the audience
Kutz: In fact, you actually use the particular vocalisation as a criterion of worth in your evaluation in your other points.
me: there are words that I wouldn’t use to my grandma that I use without guilt elsewhere
But I wouldn’t curse saying “sugar” in front of gran either.
Kutz: Sure, no problem with that, nor your position on Paul’s usage. Agere completely.
agree even.
me: the numbers in the post aren’t in any significant chronological order
Kutz: heh… That’s funny.
me: or logical order
Kutz: what about a groan, is that ok?
me: they’re just points about swearing
Kutz: It’s the same thing.
Yeah, I figured they weren’t flowing logically or based on value/
me: saying ouch is one thing, saying “Oh shit/damn/bugger/sugar” is slightly different
Kutz: So you’d not vocalise anything in front of your grandma if you hit yourself with a hammer?
What is the difference?
me: I’d say ouch.

Amy says:

It’s about respect I think.
I have no problem swearing most of the time.
But my sister-in-law and brother-in-law wouldn’t be happy with their children swearing so I don’t do it in front of them. Whether or not I agree with that position I respect their decision.
Same for your gran.

Amy says:

And there is also a big difference between verbally abusing someone and vocalising when you have smacked your hand with a hammer.

Leah says:

The bible tells us to watch our tongues and to not create stumbling blocks. I think that’s all there is to it.

Nathan says:

Leah, I’m not sure who that point is agreeing or disagreeing with – nobody is ignoring those issues.

Kutz says:

So are you saying that it’s ok to say ‘shit!’ when you hit your hand with a hammer? (I’m not making a judgment call on that, just checking that I’ve got your position right)

Essentially, what I’m saying is that your point 2 as written doesn’t work because it’s misleading about what you’re getting at. The rationale that you use isn’t actually the problem that you have with the activity. As you yourself happily state, swearing IS about the words used, because certain words offend and others don’t.

I can see where you’re coming from here, and can definitely understand the opinion. In fact, I mostly agree.

I do, however, think that self-restraint has value, and that someone exercises self-restraint can change the moral complexion of what they’ve thought. You could as easily say that the person has been tempted (not a sin) but has resisted the temptation…

Pffft… This is so not worth it anymore, and takes WAY too long in digital format. Come to Brisi soon bro. We’ll be like Luther and drink ale and swear at each other.

simone r says:

I know a good church…