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The Curse Words We Don’t Know We Use

Unwholesome talk is about a lot more than just four-letter words.

Published on:
May 1, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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At the ripe age of five, I unfurled my first curse word into the world. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the experience to mutter it under my breath or the cleverness to disguise my frustration with an appropriate alternative like “dang” or “darn.” But what made matters worse is that I was playing checkers with my mom and I thought the four-letter word I heard the older kids using in the neighborhood was the perfect rebuttal for her request of “king me.” I assure you it was not. The taste of bar soap lingered on my tongue for days and the command “king me” is now always followed by a quick “yes, ma’am.”

Often my own cursing just takes a more clever form.

When I remember this story, I like to think that I’ve gotten a better handle of my tongue. 

I think that when my language is void of four-letter words, I’ve somehow arrived. When I consider the apostle Paul’s charge to not let any unwholesome talk come out of my mouth, I naïvely think he’s addressing members of South Park or actors in a Judd Apatow movie. But often my own cursing just takes a more clever form. 

Guard Your Tongue

With the divisive rhetoric, polarized beliefs, and toxic conversations going on in our world today, if our cursing isn’t four-letter vulgarities, it’s usually laced in a poisonous tone, hurtful generalization, or the cold act of writing someone off before we’ve considered what they said. In David Dark’s book Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, he speaks of the curse words we don’t realize we use:

This is why it often seems to me that calling someone liberal, conservative, fundamentalist, atheist, or extremist is to largely deal in curse words. It puts a person in what we take to be their place, but it only speaks in shorthand. When I go no further in my consideration of my fellow human, I betray my preference for caricature over perception, a shrug as opposed to a vision of somebody in a body. In the face of a beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.
In the face of a beautifully complicated life, I’ve opted for oversimplification.

In a predominantly individualistic society, it makes sense that we gravitate to the scriptural charge to guard our tongues. But in so doing, we lose the substance of the message, that our language benefits others. 

Penny & Sparrow

In a recent interview with musical artist Penny & Sparrow, lead singer Andy Baxter expressed his frustration at the state of our polarized society and explains the band’s song that sprung from it. 

I was frustrated at the fact that there are human beings that we have very strong opinions about that we have never met with, broken bread with, or spent any time with and that frustrated the hell out of me. So because of that fact, I wanted to write from a perspective that looks at everyone and says, “Your opinions are invalid if you don’t have skin in the game.”

On an album that already weighs heavy on the soul, Kin, the product of Baxter’s critique, is no different. On the track, the duo sings from the perspective of a person who is unwilling to enter proximity with those they disregard. They sing,

I don’t wanna see a supper table
Disallow a love because you’re unable to admit I may
Be a little bolder than you’re capable of owning
I know I don’t wanna compromise.

As the groaning americana sound from the solo guitar blends with the powerful lyrics, the song blurs between critique and plea. Lines like

You’re being a coward
Only fearing your changed mind. 

make no attempt to subtly allude to society’s breakdown of healthy conversations, or how the song manages to be inclusive in their confusion over compromised integrity.

Where the hell did your spine go?
Did you cut it out?
Did it never grow?

While the song has the opportunity to create yet another dichotomy, the righteous who are compassionate and the lowly who curse from afar, it doesn’t. Instead, the verses toward the end of the song level the playing field. Writing from the perspective of God, they consider his sadness when his union with us was severed by sin.

You were never automatic
I coulda quit you on the day you hit my face
You get problematic
But I won’t, and it’s all right. 

Penny & Sparrow point us to the first relationship we severed. The sin of cursing one another didn’t start with the 2016 election or the countless injustices before that. And despite what we like to think, we haven’t mastered our shortcomings when we stop cussing, or by being kind, or compromising. Like Dark said, we have opted for oversimplification, and that’s filled our mouths with curse words we don’t know we use. 

Sam Guthrie
Sam Guthrie is a graduate of Gordon College (BA in Sociology) and Penn State University (MA in Higher Education). He and his wife enjoy breakfast food, adventures, and working with college students. You can find more of his writings at bothand.blog where he and his friends write about faith and culture.

Cover image by Andrew Neel.


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