The @#%&! Words We Use

When I was a kid, the use of certain words would get my mouth washed out with soap. A mouthful of soap (usually a bar, the liquid kind in a pinch, and laundry detergent once) is a pretty effective deterrent, so I had to find creative news ways to express the same sentiments.

My parents subscribed to the “dynamic equivalence” theory of vulgar language. “Damn,” of course, was out, but so were its more commonly accepted derivatives “darn” and “dang,” because those were just “different ways of saying the same thing.” Oddly enough, “shoot” was just fine.

All my friends’ parents all had similar rules, but the banned vocabulary differed from household to household. Some kidsĀ  would “hell” and “crap” with impunity while others (like me) played it safe, reassigning stronger meanings to what we’d heard from Beaver Cleaver and Charlie Brown.

Language is a dynamic, ever-changing thing. Words have meanings, but those meanings change from region to region, and generation to generation. New words are coined all the time. Every clique in high school has its favorite euphemisms. Remember when “bad” meant “good?” Gay used to mean “happy” (or so I’m told). Every day, words are borrowed and stolen, co-opted, branded, and misspelled (intentionally and otherwise).

Culture assigns meaning to the words we use. Technically, it’s referred to as the “dysphemism treadmill;” a word or phrase can have multiple meanings, depending on the context. Consider U2 frontman Bono’s use of the grandaddy of all curse words on live television upon receiving a Golden Globe Award. Because the Irishman’s use of the F-word was not meant to be profane (he celebrated his receipt of the award by gleefully saying, “This is really, really f—ing brilliant!), the FCC deemed it acceptable. “Family Values” proponents everywhere (few of whom had obviously ever been to Ireland) were outraged. The rest of America yawned. They understood Bono’s meaning.

Culture warriors are upset with Mark Driscoll over his language. He doesn’t understand “the distinction between strong language and obscene language,” they say. I say he’s a product of (and minister to) the Pacific Northwest, a region of the United States that uses language differently from, say, Kentucky. In order to communicate, one needs to be curt, direct. In Seattle, to be politely vague is not to communicate at all- people literally cannot get your meaning unless you speak frankly and directly. That’s why Pastor Mark doesn’t mince words. His culture values plain language. He provides it in order to clearly communicate the gospel (and its implications) to people who otherwise don’t hear it.

I’m not advocating vulgarity or profanity here. I believe that words and meanings are important. I believe that Christians should not use unwholesome or filthy language. But I’ve been the foreigner and outsider enough to know that I can’t be the police of the world’s English. The problem with language is that obscenity doesn’t depend on a particular string of consonants and vowels, it’s all about the intent. Intent is a tricky (and dangerous) thing to judge.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.