Curse of the Uniquitous Foul Mouth

Jan 27, 2003 10:48 AM EST

Patricia Heaton, of "Everybody Loves Raymond," could not take it anymore. Scheduled to introduce a segment of the nationally televised American Music Awards, she found herself getting more and more offended at the sex talk, the leering poses and the nonstop expletives, especially from the emcees, the bleeping Osbourne family.

"As far as I'm concerned," she said later, "it was an affront to anyone with a shred of dignity, self-respect and intelligence." She walked out. Her colleagues were no doubt genuinely surprised that anyone would actually be offended by offensive language.

Such language is like cultural wallpaper now, everywhere present--from cable TV to rap lyrics, from casual conversation to prime-time award shows. At the recent Golden Globes, U2's Bono sent out to millions of living rooms a word your grandmother probably never heard spoken and certainly never spoke herself.

Bad language used to be associated with the lower classes--hence the term "vulgarity." But it is now an affectation of celebrities and macho corporate go-getters. Even sailors and peasants watched their language around ladies and children, but now family gatherings at the ballpark must endure obscenities from neighboring fans. Women are swearing the same blue streak as men, and young children don't seem to have their mouths washed out with soap. A recent Washington Post op-ed lamented the common experience of finding oneself in a subway car "filled with cursing students."

What difference does it make? What is so bad about bad language? In fact, language taboos carry moral and spiritual significance in every culture.

One category of bad language is essentially a violation of the obligation to love one's neighbor. "Cursing" is a type of prayer, one that calls down harm. To ask God to condemn a person to everlasting torment--for the crime, say, of cutting you off on the interstate--is an act of cruelty, however fitful the passion that gave rise to it. And then there are imprecations traditionally considered morally out of line. Naming someone with excretory words or sexual ones carries the full charge of heinous insult, as does questioning the legitimacy of someone's birth, or his mother's virtue.

The moral problem lies not just in the words but in how they are used: to abuse others. This is the thrust of what the New Testament says on the subject. The tongue, said James, needs to be tamed. "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God" (James 3:9). The tongue should be used to bless, not to hurt, our neighbor, who was, after all, made in the image of God.

What used to be considered the most morally problematic language of all is today considered the most acceptable. "Profanity" violates what is sacred. "You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain," says the commandment, adding, ominously, "for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain" (Exodus 20:7).

Devoutly observant Jews will not even say the name of the Most High--and will often write G-d for fear of violating this solemn commandment. But today "omigods"--the many nonreligious uses of the word--are staples of conversation.

The reason the name of God is to be handled gingerly is that to call upon him is to invoke his presence. We are to call upon him in prayer, in thanksgiving, in worship and in time of need. But to use his name cavalierly is blasphemous. He is holy, so his name and words about him are holy and not to be trifled with.

"But I don't mean anything by it," a modern-day unintentional blasphemer might say. Exactly. Not meaning anything by it is what it means to take the Lord's name "in vain."

The existence of profanity is odd evidence of the persistence of religion even for people who think they are secular. Cursing rests on the assumption that the spiritual realm is real. It is ironic to hear people who do not believe in God continually invoking him in their speech. Those who believe that, if there is a God, he is nonjudgmental and omni-nice can be heard calling down divine wrath on persons and things that make them angry. Meanwhile, status-conscious teenagers and fastidious socialites use barnyard imagery that used to mark the vulgar and déclassé.

Words have meaning, even if those who use them do not know what it is. And to those for whom nothing is sacred, everything is profane.

Mr. Veith is a professor of English at Concordia University Wisconsin and the culture editor of World Magazine.

By Gene Veith