Just like our society has written laws, we also have unwritten rules. We have a lot of them, when it comes to cussing, cursing or swearing, or having a “potty mouth” (depending on where you’re from). Some rules are about who you can cuss in front of. For instance, it used to be that you didn’t cuss if women or children were around. This was so you didn’t corrupt them. And if you were a child, you definitely didn’t cuss in front of the teacher, or grandma. This was so you didn’t get in trouble. And, no matter who you are, you sure don’t cuss in front of the preacher, or at church—because, you know, it’s only then that God can hear. Then there are unspoken rules about certain people get a free pass to cuss—like mechanics and sailors. But what if you’re my brother, and you’re both a preacher and a sailor? (I guess he’s really confused!) And then there are secret rules about special exemptions from the cussing clause. Like it’s okay to cuss if you refer to somebody else and make “air quotes.” Or if you spell it. Or if, in your spelling, you make reference to sports equipment, like hockey sticks.
Sometimes these rules about cussing seem arbitrary. Why, for example, can you use a word like “doo-doo,” but not its alternative? According to Oxford Dictionaries, it all comes from a class distinction in England. After the Norman Conquest, peasants who continued to speak an Old English dialect that was heavily influenced, were looked down upon by the nobles who spoke Old French, which was influenced by Latin. The nobles believed that the Germanic-based language was “vulgar” (which means “of the crowd”). In English, our offensive language mainly comes from that Germanic base, which is considered vulgar because it’s the language of the common people. It has nothing to do with obscenity, and everything to do with cultural snobbery.[i]
Christians have a long history of saying that it’s a sin to cuss—but when it comes to foul language, it’s important to know what the Bible does and doesn’t say. The Bible gives us many guidelines for appropriate speech—but not appropriate language, if that makes sense. Keep in mind that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written mainly in Greek—and the writers couldn’t have cared about English, because as a language it didn’t yet exist. So whether you say “poo-poo” or its alternative is not even a consideration for Biblical writers. It’s not so much whether your words come from a Germanic or French background. It’s what comes out of your heart.
Proverbs emphasizes not the avoidance of certain words, but clean speech, as opposed to perversity. Proverbs 4:24[ii] says, “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.” Proverbs 10:32 says, “The lips of the righteous know what finds favor, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse.” In other words, good people know how to use their language to bless people, help people, and honor people, but wicked people use twisted speech. The word “perverse” means to be turned away from what is right and good. So the interest here is in our speech being straightforward, honest, and honorable—as opposed to corrupt, which speaks of rottenness, decay, and disease. This is the difference between cussing and cursing. Cussing is when English-speakers choose Germanic-based words. Cursing is when we use speech that is wicked and perverse, that does real damage. There are several categories of corrupt speech, including:
Lying. Proverbs 10:18 says, “Whoever conceals hatred with lying lips and spreads slander is a fool.” This is not only dishonesty about another person, but dishonesty about how you feel. God wants integrity, which means our feelings and speech need to match one another. Proverbs 12:19, 22 says, “Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment…The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.” Proverbs 19:9 says, “A false witness will not go unpunished, and whoever pours out lies will perish.” God isn’t just concerned with making sure you are honest with yourself—God wants us to be honest with each other, and about each other. Even for those who think they can get away with dishonesty, life has a way of bringing truth and its consequences to those who deceive.
Gossip. Not everybody who gossips is a liar. Sometimes gossip is true—but just because it’s true, that doesn’t mean it needs to be told. Proverbs 11:13 says, “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.” Bible teacher Greg Laurie suggests that before you spread gossip, you need to T.H.I.N.K. Ask yourself if what you’re about to say is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind. If not, then keep it to yourself.[iii]
Mocking. Proverbs 14:6 says, “The mocker seeks wisdom and finds none, but knowledge comes easily to the discerning.” Mocking is when we use our words to tear other people down. It’s like the emotional bully who calls names because he can’t use rational language. Typically, mocking uses words we generally consider offensive to a person’s ethnic, cultural, sexual, or gender identity. The opposite of mocking, of course, is knowledge and discernment.
Troublemaking. Strange as it may seem, sometimes lying, gossiping, and mocking are not really intended to harm people—they just somehow do. But troublemaking is when you intentionally are trying to harm another person. Proverbs 6:12-15 talks about, “A troublemaker and a villain, who goes about with a corrupt mouth, who winks maliciously with his eye, signals with his feet and motions with his fingers, who plots evil with deceit in his heart—he always stirs up conflict. Therefore disaster will overtake him in an instant; he will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy.” Notice how the troublemaker uses not just his speech, but his whole demeanor, to stir the pot? Sometimes he can say one thing with his mouth, and another with his body language—masking his culpability with intentional deceit.
Instead of these things, Proverbs advises that we use our speech thoughtfully and respectfully, with wisdom and love. Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 18:21 reminds us, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” When we remember this, we become aware that our speech should be used to heal, and never to hurt. We also remember that if our words offend people, even if it’s because they come from Germanic instead of French roots—then maybe we need to rethink our word choices in front of those people.
Author Wayne Dyer points out that when you squeeze an orange, orange juice comes out. Not grapefruit juice or apple juice—because what comes out is what’s inside.[iv] In the New Testament, Jesus says, “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6:45).” When life puts pressure on you, what comes out is what’s inside—I pray that your words will build up, and not tear down, and that they’ll be filled with love and virtue.
[i] “Swear words, etymology, and the history of English.” Oxford Dictionaries.
August 20, 2018..
[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.
[iii] Laurie, Greg. “T.H.I.N.K.” . August 20, 2018.
[iv] Dyer, Wayne. “Why the inside Matters.” . August 20, 2018.