Friday, May 01, 2009

The Words We Use: Profanity, Vulgarity, and the Glory of God

Remember what your grandmother used to tell you about cussing? "I'll wash your mouth out with soap, young man!” Most kids learn that certain “dirty words” will get them into trouble when spoken in front of older adults or in public places. Every culture dictates that certain words are lewd or offensive by nature. Thus, in each particular culture sensibilities are perturbed when obscenities are thrown around by those who give no regard for standards of decency.

What few people realize, however, is that vulgarities are not equivalent to profanity. Vulgarities are cultural-relative, but profanity is blasphemy. Profanity by definition transcends to a higher level because it shows irreverence towards something holy. I find it peculiar that in most televised movies censored for language, certain obscenities are redubed while profanities remain, such as taking the Lord's name in vain (e.g. "God," "Jesus Christ," etc.). In the Old Testament, God forbade Israel to speak His name in vain, for there is nothing more sacred than the name of the Lord.

The exception to the rule, of course, is "God damn," which oddly enough still has the ability to offend those who take no offense in using holy names such as "Jesus Christ" or "God" in vain and do not hesitate to misuse ideas such as "damnation" out of their proper context. Complacency and nominal religion dominate the makeup of the American population but why do they continue in this irreverence? Either we do not stop to consider the meaning of the words they use, or they do not believe in the ideas that the words describe. Not only do they profane the holy, but they utter curses with flippancy. Indeed, if a man were angry at his brother for being late for a social event he might be in the right to rebuke his brother for being a poor manager of time, but to "damn" him by condemning his soul to eternal damnation would be beyond his human authority. Only God is just in such a judgment, thus we must realize that there is really no difference in the verb, "damn" and the more culturally offensive "God damn." Very few people are conscious of this truth. Worse still, many curse simply because they like the sound of a word as it rolls off their tongue.

Though vulgarities are limited to the cultural realm and usually not blasphemous per se, foul language can become an addictive habit that is not easily broken. Moreover, one who makes a habit out of it will be blind to the fact that his/her vocabulary has likely become stagnate. Language is the central medium by which we express ideas and feelings; if we take our use of language lightly then we reveal by inference that we attach very little value to those ideas that language expresses.

When studied and used properly, language can help us formulate and order our own thoughts and express them with clarity and eloquence to others. On the other hand, when taken for granted, language will degrade into mindless rambling. If we are to bring revival to our culture which is largely devoid of reverence, we must first discipline ourselves to choose our words carefully.