I came across an interesting study (Oxford University Press) on the subject of swearing, the verbal use of some profane oath or word to shock, exclaim, or register disgust. The root of swearing is, of course, in the ancient effort to solemnly declare something of sacred or social significance. It was the affirmation of some important promise, enforced by strong language such as invoking the name of God or some deity. Swearing today is more often just lazy language, a failed effort to express one’s self properly by resorting to verbs and adjectives with almost meaningless repetition. Listen closely to teens in a shopping mall or hear a college conversation and be appalled at how often references to various bodily functions, including sexual activity, are reduced to one-word epithets hurled aimlessly.
I read this study to try to understand why people voice such offensive indelicacies, and I was surprised to learn that most of our modern swear words began in the 18th and 19th century. Literal taboo topics were reduced to words used to shock, offend, or simply swear. The effect of any outrageous act depends somewhat on culture. The news media had to explain to Americans the horror of then-President Bush having a man from Iraq throw a shoe at him. The word “bloody” never quite affected the USA like it did England and Australia. But certain things about swearing are universal. Profanity generally refers to denigrating something sacred whereas an obscenity or swearing involves the use of words that contain oaths or offenses designed to insult.
Sadly, today you don’t have to listen-in-on a barroom conversation to hear swearing. Highly offensive words can be heard by some Christians in casual conversation. “Hell” (Do they really want to send someone there?) and “damn/damned” (Can any believer arrogantly assume a right of perdition reserved for God’s judgment?) as well as a liberal sprinkling of “F” words is not uncommon. I suggest that some Christians have become too much like the world, indolent in their use of descriptive words and insulting to the Holy Spirit. Remember the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (5:34-37): “But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”