Swearing, Orwell and being made in the image of God

[Warning: I don’t normally swear on this blog but this post includes some swear words. Just letting you know if you need to prepare yourself!]

‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justifcation is there for a word which is simply the opposite of another word? A word contains the opposite in itself. Take “good” for instance. If you had a word like “good”, wehat need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning; or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that? …Don’t you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?

1984, Chapter 5
George Orwell

Language is a subjective thing. What counts as a swear word? The memory of my adolescent self is still apologizing for saying ‘damn’ so much here in the early days. I had no idea it was that offensive in North America until a few years ago.

What counts as a curse word seems to be constantly changing, dependent on time and place. And for Christians there are a range of different views on what kind of language we should be using, supported by a hundred different arguments and counterarguments (many drawn from the bible) to back up whatever position we’ve taken:

– “Don’t take God’s name in vain, people!”
– “I only use swear words when things are really bad – when they really express something!”
– “The bible says ‘let no filthy talk come from your mouth’. And swear words are filthy. So logically…”
– “Some people might be offended by those words, but that’s not what I mean when I say them.”
– “They’re just words – they have no power.”
– “You’re quoting the bible out of context.”
– “Those words are demeaning to women, we shouldn’t be using them.”
– “I am free in Christ to express myself.”
– “I use my freedom in Christ to sacrifice my self expression for the sake of others.”

I’ve heard them all.
This is not what I’m writing about today.

A friend made a random offhand comment last year, something along the lines of:

“I hate it when people are constantly swearing. It’s like they don’t use their brains.”

It made me stop and pause and for the first time I considered the consequences of chronic swearing on a societal level. It’s actually something that happens. The kind of swearing which manifests itself in entire communities speaking a form of language where every second word is a crass expletive. Where all the adjectives are replaced by “shit” and all the superlatives involve a “fucking”. It’s the language you catch among some sub cultural groups, among teenagers who think they already know everything, among people who didn’t engage well with the education system. You must have heard it before. The thing that alarms me about it is its terrifying similarity to Orwell’s Newspeak, made famous in his work “1984”.

In Orwell’s dystopian future, all creativity and individuality is squashed out of society through the paring back of language to its bare bones. Colourful adjectives, metaphor, poetry – it’s gone, replaced by bland descriptors that don’t mean anything at all. Good. Plusgood. Doubleplusgood. In a world with reduced language, humans are reduced too. There is no outlet for expression or creativity, no means to imagine new concepts or challenge the status quo.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? Is there any difference between “plusgood” and “shit”? Things might not be as tragic as Orwell’s dystopian future, but the stifling of creativity looks like a plausible future for some communities. Curse words are whittling away language, replacing the words that could otherwise be harnessed to think new thoughts.

As a Christian I look at that situation and see alarm bells ringing straight away. Not just because of the filthy language spewing from our mouths (James 3 anyone?). There is even more at stake when an individual swears as part of a community. On a corporate level swear words can function as agents of chaos, depleting our linguistic resources and stifling creativity, stifling our ability to fulfill our human potential. Stifling our ability to create like the God who’s image we were made in.

What can we do? Maybe trade some words or phrases. Next time you want to call something “shit”, maybe try “the worst thing in the long history of the cosmos”. Or if you want to pump up your adjective use a little, how about instead of using “fucking” try “extremely”. Or “terrifyingly”. Or anything else?

Or you can try reclaiming some original meaning. Maybe just save those words for when you actually want to talk about smelly excrement, or the violent sexual penetration of another person. You know, for when those topics come up in your conversation.

Language is a beautiful thing!
Heed Orwell’s warning – cultivate it, don’t cut it down with lazy swear words!


5 thoughts on “Swearing, Orwell and being made in the image of God

  1. tibbycat

    I’ll never forget the look of horror towards me from a little boy in Georgia in the US when I uttered in public the very Australian words, “bloody hell” :p

    As a former student of linguistics I definitely have to take the opposite viewpoint of you Spally and also express you how happy I was when we last met up and I heard you utter in frustration the word ‘fuck’ about something we were talking about. I couldn’t help but smile at how ‘real’ it was and how justified it felt at your frustration on the topic.

    Swearing/cursing/taboo words are entirely culturally relative and in one hundred years from now (or even less time than that most likely), words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ will have fuck all effect as expletives and new ones will be created to take their place.

    When I first became a Christian I was paranoid about swearing so I self-censored how I spoke to risk offending other Christians because of interpretations of James 3 and Ephesians 4 with which I no longer agree.

    I think those verses are about much more than just uttering taboo words. Instead, they’re about how we use our words as a whole to heal or hurt people. Certainly many Christians unfortunately can use words, without uttering a single taboo word, and hurt people in the process because of the lack of love in their words. That’s what those passages are getting at the bible I think.

    Even Paul himself uses the word shit, “Skubala” in Philippians 3:8 to refer to what is the value of everything compared to Christ (of course modern translations will translate it as “rubbish” or “garbage” instead which misses the emphasis Paul was trying to make with such a comparison).

    We know from science too that swearing when you hurt yourself can actually reduce the amount of pain you feel so there’s a medical benefit to swearing (Stephen Fry mentioned this on his show on SBS last year about swearing and I’ve heard Dr Karl on his Triple J podcast often refer to studies done that have proved this too)

    That all said though, I do agree that when people use ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ for Everything Single Adjective, it can be quite linguistically limiting. There’s certainly a lack of linguistic creativity from such people. However, I don’t think that means that using taboo words are always lazy and sometimes, as how Paul uses skubala, it’s for a bloody good reason to express just how strong you feel about something.

    Lastly, I thought this was a good blog post about the topic that goes into more detail about swearing and the bible.

    All of the above is meant with love :p
    Sorry if I come off as overtly self-righteous in it.

    1. Alison Post author

      That’s true about the changing of language. I know that meanings in words shift but I guess my Orwellian argument doesn’t really leave room for that! That’s what I get for basing an idea off a dystopian vision 😛

      We were actually talking about swearing in the bible at work yesterday, reading 1 Corinthians. I think he uses the same word there in chapter 4. He talks about how the world treats him (and the other apostles) as crap that gets scraped off someone’s shoe.

      I just had a thought – it’s kind of interesting that when Paul swears in the bible, he seems to always be applying the word/idea to himself and his peers. I can’t think of an example where he swears at or about other people. That’s crazy! I don’t know anyone who uses swear words like that today.

  2. tibbycat

    I meant to reply to your reply here awhile ago but I went to hospital for my Sharpay nose job which has been kinda hurty ever since.

    I was saying to Brad the other day though how pleasant it was to receive your reply which was so much more intelligent than the usual “but Mark you said a four letter word and you’re not repentant so you’re obvs not a Christian anymore!” Christian reply I’ve received on this topic from others :p

    Actually I think where you might be right about the Orwellian argument is where we see certain phrases used as euphemisms in political speech. For example, “enemy combatant” instead of “prisoner of war”, or “queue jumper” instead of “asylum seeker”. That reminds me exactly of 1984’s concept of double speak.

    Ooh, that’s interesting about him using it also in 1 Corinthians there. I didn’t realize he did it there also.
    I dunno, we kinda can use modern day taboo words in a self-deprecating way, such as when we say we’re shit at something. For example, “I’m shit at waking up early. I need to go to sleep earlier at night”. Is that what you mean?

    I was thinking the other day how the multiple colloquial uses of ‘fuck’ in English must make it a really difficult word for second language learners of English to fully grasp how to use it. Swearing in French is hard I find as there’s no real direct equivalent of ‘fuck’. They say ‘pute’ (‘slut’ or ‘whore’) a lot though which I think is in reference to Jesus’ mum Mary. With France being a traditionally Catholic country, I guess the quickest way to offend there is to question Mary’s chastity :p


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