Unclean Lips Redux

As I was cleaning out old email, I found a comment Steven Nicoloso made regarding cursing. Since this topic was recently addressed here, I thought I'd share the comment.

"What I'd propose is a four-ary breakdown, a spectrum, of Dangerous Words, recognizing of course that even the strongest word is inherently weaker than the weakest meaning and intention."

"1) Objective Violation of the 2nd Commandment–vain use of God's name: YHWH, Jesus, Christ, maybe others, uttered either as a curse or a intentionally false oath. This is, I think, always a grave matter. I'd don't think I'd count the exclamation 'god' as a per se' violation here since that is not God's name."

"2) Cursing Proper–invoking deity or other holy thing or attribute in vain generally or with a specific eternal intention. Here we would find utterances such as god, goddamn and possibly hell, if the intent is to say dammit to hell. Possibly in this category we might find things like 'Holy Moly', but such utterances seem more nonsense than actual profanity. I guess if Moly was a real, unholy thing, then maybe. Dangerous words of categories (1) and (2) are both types of profanity proper. But type (2) fails to be obvectively grave, depending on the circumstances. Damning or wishing hell upon something detestible like, say, sin or heresy or a possibly rotten money-pit of a car or the pain of your thumb once hit by a hammer is not necessarily an evil, unjust, or vain desire. In some cases it is a positive good. Of course we should never wish, not even jokingly, damnation or hell on any person, so certain uses are definitely wrong. Type (2) Dangerous Words are still extremely dangerous and we should definitely not be in the habit of uttering them willy-nilly, just 'cause we feel like it."

"3) Obscenity Proper–these are words that refer to conjugal relations and associated body parts, having often or generally a lascivious connotation. Oddly two of these (less dangerous dangerous words) are among the 3 most taboo in the English language… one beginning with F and referring to copulation and the other beginning with C and referring to female sexual anatomy. Others here include 'd*ck', various erectile euphemisms, euphemisms of sexual position and exploit, &c., &c.. Sexuality is perhaps the richest soil for the development of slang in the English language (I suppose we should thank either the Victorians or the Puritans for that… perhaps both.) Use of words and themes in this category is dangerous, but sometimes called for. They should be used judiciously and precisely for their shock value and/or their fine ability to convey shades of meaning not readily offerred by other nouns or adjectives. Paul's angry reference to removal of the male member in Galatians falls under this category, I think."

"4) Mere Offensive Words–in this category are all the rest and run a gamut from silly (and perfectly innocent) euphemisms for excrement, urine and vomit, to much more potentially wicked terms such as racial slurs. With these words, it depends entirely upon the intent of the communication. Obviously to intend a racial slur is extremely wicked and extremely grave. To refer to a destable thing by some euphemism indicating excrement may be perfectly justified, even laudable in the right circumstances. St. Paul's reference (Philippians) to the fleshly things he valued in his former life as a Pharisee as skubalon ('sh*t') is an example of this kind of usage."

Comments 2

  1. Rob wrote:

    In German, Category 3 generally isn’t considered obscene. Impolite is more like it.

    German really seems to put an emphasis on the religious profanity…far more than English.

    All those words we translated directly from the Englisch were just annoying.

    In ASL, many “nose” words (signs that involved the nose) seem to be far more offensive than your list would credit them.

    “Urinate” used to be obscene, while the word we now consider obscene was the proper medical term. Usage changed.

    The intransitive form of the verb “to suck” has a totally different meaning from the transitive form. The funny thing is, most high school students know the difference between transitive and intransitive as a result.

    The “n” word seems to be obscene, based on who’s saying it. I suspect that, despite being African-American, I can’t use that one safely.

    I wonder if there are some of the sexual words that are only obscene out of context. In the bedroom (or possibly the bathroom, or the kitchen, or the living room, or the laundry or the computer room, or the steps, or the car, or the back yard late at night, or certain parks) some words are quite acceptable, although others are not.

    I suspect your list is far too culturally and situationally specific. I’m not sure how well it really reflects the human experience.

    Posted 12 Dec 2005 at 2:38 pm
  2. Steve Nicoloso wrote:


    I’d intended category 3 to come somewhat near the category of “filthy” or “obscene” (which in English connotes prurience not merely vulgarity or rudeness) talk condemned by the Apostle Paul. Surely the category is culturally dependent to some extent, but the basic jist is you don’t go ’round discussing (or bragging about) sexual organs, exploits, or positions in (yes) polite company… in any civilized culture at any rate. Whether the Germans consider this “obscene” is beside the point, for it is merely by definition (in English). Such talk is generally proscribed by the Apostle, and therefore must be accounted for in a Christian view of “colorful metaphor”.

    The N-word is not obscene by definition (at least by the definition I’m relying upon for this spectrum argument) but usually terribly offensive. It therefore falls under the typically less serious Category 4. It is thus far from objectively grave, but as intended us as a racial slur, an expression of hatred, it can be very grave indeed (as I attempted to convey… maybe not well). In short it (like the C-word and the F-word), not being objectively profane (categories 1 and 2), are only seriously evil words when used in an evil way.

    Leave it to Eric to turn an unedited comment of mine into a blog article. Trying to make me look bad?! 😉


    Posted 12 Dec 2005 at 5:50 pm

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