Worship in the Modern World

Praising God with the Best of the Past and the Present

What Makes a Bad Word Bad?

I’ve gotten a lot of requests for the notes from Merge (Journey’s weeknight bible study/discussion group) – specifically for the notes from a couple of weeks ago but also for the other ones we’ve done.  I decided to add them here, so watch for others in the future.

A couple of weeks ago we tackled everyone’s favorite vice: swearing.  I think it’s safe to say that at some point, everyone swears.  Whether you suddenly discover with the aid of your big toe where the coffee table is when the lights are off or when someone cuts you off in traffic when you’re on your way to an important job interview, chances are good that something colorful is likely to appear.  But what’s the big deal with swearing? Is it really so wrong?

One of my favorite authors is Jon Acuff over at Stuff Christians Like. He had a couple of articles on the subject of swearing Christians.  We took a look at his humorous, yet insightful articles and asked so is swearing really all that bad?

As a bit of a side note, we took a look at the difference between different types of “bad words” – specifically obscenities, profanities and vulgarity.

We then dove into exploring what the Bible has to say about swearing.

While the information about the differences in swears was interesting (and a fun bit of trivia to pull out at parties) and the Bible verses were all well and good, there was still the dilemma of what actually constitutes a “bad word”? The Bible is not specific at all, simply referring to “curses” and “unwholesome talk”.  What what is unwholesome talk? Is it the same for everyone or does it change from person to person?  The argument can also be made that what’s considered a swear word today won’t always be. Take some common phrases you might have heard your grandparents utter:

  • Egad – We think of it as a harmless word now, but back in the 1700s it was considered “most high blasphemy” as it means “Oh, God”
  • Gadzooks – I seem to remember this being in a Disney movie – it actually originates from the phrase “God’s Hooks,” meaning the nails that held Christ on the cross.  To use this term in the 17-1800s was considered a big no-no.
  • Ay Caramba! – Ay is a Spanish interjection of surprise or pain and Caramba is a slang term for (among other things) male genitalia. What’s most surprising is that it entered American pop culture in the 1950s when it was introduced by Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy.”

As crazy as it sounds, those words or phrases at one time were offensive and not to be uttered in polite company. Now, those words are used as stand-ins for words that are really bad! My how things have changed.

So, in the end it all circles back to the question of what makes a bad word.  I’m certain that if you were to lay out the different swear words along a continuum, we could all agree on what words belonged at the far end of the unspeakable spectrum and which words are on the harmless end (shucks, for example).  But where in the middle do you draw the line? At what point does it become bad?

I think the answer lies in our hearts.  In Philippians 4:8, we’re told to think on whatever is pure, noble, and good.  In our hearts, we know when something is not one of those things. It’s the reason why we can control our language in situations where it would be inappropriate. While some might claim that their language is just a habit, I’m sure they also know what words not to use around small children. It’s controllable so far as we’re willing to control it.

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