Shopping Cart


A Fundamentalist Thinks about Swearing

Monday, 6 June 2011  | Bill James

"The following programme contains coarse language which might offend some viewers".

The terminology to be discussed below will be spelled out quite explicitly. If anyone reading this piece cannot cope with seeing "rude" words in print, it would be wise for them to stop reading right now.

The word ‘swear’ and its cognates are employed in two different ways in English, though there is a tenuous connection between these usages. In English translations of the Bible, the word always refers to the swearing of an oath, not to "bad" language. Some of you would have been thinking, "Hey, hang on! Perhaps the word itself isn't used, but the thought is there. What about the admonitions against "unwholesome talk" and "obscenity, foolish talk,... coarse joking" in Ephesians, and "filthy language" in Colossians?"

The fact is that there can be "filthy language" without swearing, and swearing without "filthy language". The two are not synonymous.

Swearing falls into three categories: the religious, the scatological and the sexual.

The third of the Ten Commandments, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", would have been originally understood as a prohibition against swearing lying oaths in God's name. In later Judaism, the scope of the commandment was broadened to cover any careless or irreverent use of the holy name. To Christians, it is self-evident that neither God's name, nor that of the Lord Jesus, should be trivialised into mere exclamations.

We find that the words hell and damn are treated as very weak forms of swearing, even by believers. It would be by no means inconceivable to hear a Christian remark, "We had a hell of a trip. We kept getting bogged, and had to dig damn hard to extricate ourselves". Language of this nature fails to recognise that the doctrines of hell and damnation represent the most solemn tenets of our faith. (While it is a diversion from the topic of swearing, at this point we should also remind ourselves that jokes about hell and damnation are also completely beyond the pale.)


The word scatological is derived from the Greek word skatos, meaning excrement. Scatology includes not just excrement, but related subjects such as urination and flatulence; subjects which we could sum up under the umbrella term earthy.

Imagine a young couple who are toilet training their first child. When she uses her potty, they are unlikely to compliment her on her defecation, but resort to terminology such as, "What a good girl to do a poo for Mummy and Daddy". But if poo, why not shit?

Now imagine the same parents, years down the track, and with a whole tribe of kids. They are about to get in the car and take off for their holiday destination. Dad wants a good, unbroken drive to get clear of the city. He probably won't order them to micturate, but there is a good chance he will yell out, "I don't want to have to stop ten minutes down the road because someone needs a leak. Everyone go and have a wee now, before we leave!" But if leak or wee, why not piss?

In other words, the question is: Once we abandon strictly correct terminology in this area, what makes one word any better or worse than another? Are the distinctions completely arbitrary? In one sense, the answer is yes, they are. Theoretically, it is no worse to use shit instead of defecate, or piss instead of urinate, than for a farmer to use fuck instead of impregnate when talking about his cattle. In practice, however, we generally choose words which enable us to avoid giving offence, no matter how irrationally based that offence might be.

Cold logic, which tells us that no word is any worse than another, must always yield to wisdom, love and consideration for others when it comes to our actual conversation.

It is interesting to note that Martin Luther, the man responsible for the rediscovery of justification by faith and the outbreak of the Reformation, habitually used strongly scatological language. Some have attributed this to his peasant background, but in those days everyone, not just peasants, was much more intimately in touch with the realities of life than we are today in the obsessively sanitised West. What is more, there was at that time no perceived incongruity in mixing the earthy with the spiritual. A woodcut from the Reformation era, for instance, shows German Protestant peasants lowering their trousers and farting in the face of the pope. Once, when weary of life and homesick for Heaven, Luther described himself as "a turd hanging off the arsehole of the world and just ready to drop".

Of course the Scriptures themselves can be quite earthy, as past generations of children discovered when leafing through their Bibles during long, boring sermons. There they would come across references to "him that pisseth against the wall" (I Kings 14:10); those who would "eat their own dung and drink their own piss" (II Kings 18:27); the sisters Aholah and Aholibah who "doted" on Assyrian "paramours whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses" (Ezekiel 23:20); and Paul who expresses the wish that his opponents would castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12), and counts all things as "dung, that I may win Christ" (Phil. 3:8).

The obvious lesson of these quotes from Luther and the Bible, is that our rather prissy and fastidious sense of propriety, as reflected in our preference for euphemistic descriptions of bodily functions, owes far more to modern middle-class culture than to spirituality. God has called us to Christ-likeness, not respectability. (I say this despite Dr. Johnson's asseveration that a bishop, and therefore by implication any Christian who aspires to sanctimony, should observe not just morality but decency, and not just decency but propriety).

It might be an opportune time, in this section on scatology, to conclude with a few general points about swearing.

First, despite the over-riding principle of not deliberately offending others by our language, there are exceptions. Think, for example, of the youth speaker addressing a crowd of Christian young people a few years ago, who gave them some statistics on global hunger, disease and mortality, concluding with, "And we don't give a shit!" He then paused, and went on, "And right now, you are more concerned that I used a bad word than you are about the sufferings of those people". That was offensive, but also a thoroughly valid strategy for demonstrating the ways in which we can be obsessive about minutiae and oblivious to genuinely staggering ethical scenarios.

Secondly, we often hear that swearing is an indication of lack of vocabulary. It certainly can be; when I was in the army, it sometimes seemed as if the conversation of those around me consisted entirely of an incessant competition as to who could cram the most forms of the word fuck into every sentence he uttered. However, if we were really concerned about limitation of vocabulary, we would become even more incensed over the proliferation of a word such as awesome, which is regularly used to describe breakfast cereals, God, soft drinks, films, Heaven, pop songs, Jesus, skate boards, drugs, cars, video games, hamburgers, church, jeans and toothpaste. I sometimes feel that if I hear the word awesome once more, I will let loose with an awesome profanity.

Continuing with the theme of vocabulary, just occasionally it feels useful to have an expletive at one's disposal with which to express sudden emotion. There are no doubt Christian motorists who, having just narrowly avoided a collision, immediately release a heartfelt, "Thank you, Lord". Then there are others, like myself, whose equally sincere thank-you prayer might be preceded with a hearty "Shit!"

There are also swear words, or at least impolite ones, which have no adequate polite equivalent. What would we do without the word wank, for example, to perfectly sum up something fake and pretentious?

Finally, the field of scatology provides another couple of examples of words which have either gradually come to be regarded as swearing, or are in the process of ceasing to be so regarded. Piss, for example, might not be a swear word in the fullest sense, but it is still unacceptable in polite circles. As can be seen from the biblical quotes above, however, it was obviously an uncontroversial term when the AV was published in the early seventeenth century. Crap, on the other hand, used to be as unacceptable as shit, but in recent years I have heard it used by a speaker in my conservative evangelical church, and seen it printed in the equally conservative and evangelical New Life newspaper.


Words carry cultural freight, and the words currently under examination bear a huge load. They are the vehicles of a deep, tragic and misery- producing flaw which directly afflicts half of humanity, and indirectly affects all of it.

Take the following common incident. A heterosexual male customer is looking for something on the shelves of a shop. A voice behind him says, "Can I help you, Sir?" He turns around to face a drop-dead gorgeous female shop assistant. His immediate, instinctive reaction is crammed into a split second, but consists of the following: "I don't know who you are, what your name is, or where you come from. I don't know anything about your family or education. I don't know your relationships or your life experiences. I don't know your achievements or failures, your strengths and weaknesses, your hopes, fears, dreams and ambitions, your joys and hurts and disappointments. I don't know your gifts and talents and personality traits. And what's more, I'm not remotely interested in any of them. I'd just love to have sex with you". Instantaneously, especially if he is a Christian, the hair-trigger mental shutter which was installed at adolescence slams down at this point, and he politely asks her for help, or tells her he is just browsing.

But the demon, present since the Fall, is still lurking there. It consists of an ineradicable urge to treat women as disposable sex objects, to be used and then discarded. That the words fuck and cunt embody this attitude can be seen from the way they are used metaphorically. When a man loses his temper with an engine that won't start, he will refer to it as a "fucking cunt of a thing", implying that it is a hopeless and despicable piece of junk, fit only to be thrown away. If something is fucked, it has served its purpose and has no future but the tip. Likewise, if he becomes involved in a road rage incident, or a brawl at the football with a rival supporter, his description of his opponent as also a fucking cunt depicts him as a figure of contempt and legitimate target of aggression. To tell someone to get fucked is not an encouragement to carnal revelling, but an incitement to irrevocably damage themselves.

The words fuck and cunt, then, are code for a worldview which sees women as worthless things to be enjoyed and discarded like so many bottles of beer, and sex as something which a man does to and against a woman because he can and he chooses to. They are not value-free, and are not to be avoided merely in order to prevent offence, but because they, and words like them (root, for example), are weapons with which to objectify and commodify women, and to dehumanise sexual relationships. It would be ridiculous to suggest that everyone using these words is consciously pushing an anti-woman or anti-marriage agenda, but objectively (as the Marxists used to say) that is the effect.

As can be deduced from the above, Christians will wish to avoid both scientific coldness and gratuitous offensiveness when choosing sexual language. Unfortunately, the list of alternatives on offer tends to the ethereal, not to say twee and precious, and includes making love, special cuddle, and the physical expression of a relationship. At least the recently arrived bonk has a happy, hearty and harmless ring to it.

Secondly, there are good reasons for not using terms such as bugger and bastard as swear words. But there seems little point in making a fuss about someone addressing his friend as "you old bastard", or referring to a child as "that poor little bugger", or complaining about someone "playing funnybuggers", or a Pidgin speaker's obligation to use variations on the word bugger, such as "buggerup", in order to communicate.

Here are a few tentative suggestions.

First, generally speaking, swearing ranks pretty low on the list when it comes to the grading of sins. It is important to get the message to young Christians that there are a few simple principles to observe, but that the subject is of relatively minor significance, and certainly not the ultimate and infallible indicator of spiritual status. Keep a sense of proportion.

Secondly, and related to the preceding point, it is not worth getting a fit of the vapours when your small child gives evidence of having learned more at school than the alphabet. (My favourite example is the mother who tells her child, "There are two words you must never say. One is shit, and the other is crap", to which he replies, "Okay, Mummy. What are the words?").

Thirdly, as your child gets older and becomes exposed to swearing not just from her peers, but also in the media, and in the texts set for study at school, it should be possible to discuss the subject with her. I hope this article might give a few hints as to how that might be done.


Paul Tyson
June 7, 2011, 2:43PM
Great article Bill. I’d like to take sideways issue with this though:
“Cold logic, which tells us that no word is any worse than another, must always yield to wisdom, love and consideration for others when it comes to our actual conversation.” What your article points out is that the verbal norms of Evangelical Christianity are really the cultural norms of Edwardian middle class respectability rather than distinctly Christian. It often seems that what is deemed wise, loving and considerate to say in Evangelical circles is polite superficial drivel, and so any strong feeling (other than rapturous narcissistic ‘worship’) and any uncomfortable thought, particularly if it has an aspect of critique or challenge to it (i.e., what the bible might call prophetic) is deemed just as inconsiderate, unChristian and disgusting as coarse street profanities. But the language of koinonia is not the language of polite and superficial lies. True fellowship has the grit of robust love about it where people care enough about one another to want to really know what the other really thinks, and where people see past the mode of expression to the substance expressed, and see conflict as an opportunity for deeper truth rather than something to be avoided so as to preserve the status quo and keep the semblance of genteel sweetness (“Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” etc) propped up at all costs.
Ian Packer
June 7, 2011, 3:31PM
That's often true, Paul. But on the other hand, there also others who confuse mere provocation with being 'prophetic' and getting a 'rise' out of people with somehow being 'radical'. But sometimes it's just being plain rude. Or, in the 'spirit' of the article, they're just being 'pricks'. In which case, switch justification of middle class culture for justification of building site culture, or lefty uni radical culture, etc etc. We are equally adept at justifying our conformity or difference and investing either with theological or ethical gravitas.

There are different kinds of conflict and, sadly, as you point out, there is a bizarre sense that prevails that all conflict must be avoided.

We ought to hear the substance of what people say, but, for ourselves, we ought to seek to communicate where any offense is from truth in what we say - and surely we don't want attention diverted from what we're saying to ourselves. Or, what does humility look like?
Paul Tyson
June 7, 2011, 4:22PM
Good points Ian – I’m not advocating offence for its own sake. But if some-one is being a prick in the name of being prophetic, if it is just all self important delusion, who is going to get hurt by it? It is were there might be some truth in it that you tend to get strong negative reactions. But surely we all need to be told we are full of shit sometimes (for, as Paul says, ‘in many ways we all offend’) – be we would be prophets, professional ministers or ordinary lay believers – and safe and secure relationships alone provide a place where reality can rub up against human foibles and we can rub each other smooth. It’s a kind of ‘fear of rub’ that I find problematic.
Ian Packer
June 7, 2011, 4:39PM
I agree.

Given the earthiness of this article, I can't help but post this not unrelated quote from Eugene Peterson on the 'gnostic' tendency among us:

"..gnostics delight in secrecy. They are prototypical insiders. They think that access to the eternal is by password and that they know the password. They love insider talk and esoteric lore. They elaborate complex myths that account for the descent of our spiritual selves into this messy world of materiality, and then map the complicated return route. They are fond of diagrams and the enlightened teachers who explain them. Their sensitive spirits are grieved by having to live surrounded by common people with their sexual leers and stupid banana-peel jokes and vulgar groveling in the pigsty of animal appetite. Gnostics who go to church involuntarily pinch their noses on entering the pew, nervously apprehensive that an insensitive usher will seat a greasy sinner next to them. They are however enabled to endure by the considerable compensation of being ‘in the know’ (gnostic means ‘the one who knows’). It is a good feeling to know that you are a cut above the common herd, superior to almost everyone you meet on the street or sit beside in church. It is inevitable that gnostics will boycott the creation theater and avoid its language as much as possible, for metaphor is an affront to their gossamer immaterialities and inner-ring whispers, a loud fart in the salon of spirituality.” (Answering God, 75-76)
June 11, 2011, 10:55AM
Great article. A few thoughts:

1) When I first heard about the new legislation in Victoria my first thought was, 'Where's the list of words we're not allowed to use? And can I get in trouble for reading it out loud?'

2) Father Bob Maguire, a rather outspoken Catholic priest in Melbourne is fond of saying, 'Swearing's a matter of manners, not morals.' Wise words, I think.

3) It seems interesting that a lot of the words we can use are of Latin or French derivation, but the not so allowable ones are of Saxon extraction. 'Shit' and 'crap' are far less polite than 'manure' and 'excrement'. I can 'copulate' with my wife, but 'fucking' her (and her me) is right out of the question. Is our reaction to swearing based more on older English perceptions of class than biblical mandate?
Ken Smith
June 30, 2011, 12:25PM
Cameron 's point in his final sentence is really what lay behind the decision to prosecute Penguin Books for publishing a paperback version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" in the 1960s. It seems ludicrous now, but the prosecutor asked the jury "Is this the sort of book you would like your servants to read?"
There is also the problem that the more staid members of the Christian community tend to read the King James version which in many places obscures the earthy Hebrew or Greek. For example, Bill quoted Ezekiel 23:20 as "whose flesh is as the flesh of asses". I normally use the Good News Bible, where the veres reads "She was filled with lust for oversexed men who had all the lustfulness of donkeys or stallions". Or what about the familiar words we sing "His banner over me is love"? Try reading the context and see if that is really appropriate for a Sunday morning service. And "come together again" (1 Cor. 7:5) is obscure compared with GNB's "resume normal marital relations". Have you ever tried to explain this bit to an inquisitive teenager? "What's normal, Dad?"
July 12, 2011, 2:32PM
I appreciated the sanity of Bill's articles and the other comments. I once said to the most potty-mouthed of our then teenagers that while we didn't like crudity (manners) we were a lot more concerned about cruelty (morals). Finely accented and polished cruelty is often allowed to pass unnoticed and unpunished in polite Church circles. On the other hand, the shock value of four letter words in some Christian circles is simply adolescent not radical.
July 15, 2011, 9:33AM
Having lived about half of my life our of Australia, one of my impressions on returning to stay was that Victoria was "becoming a police state" in terms of some of the rules and regulations. So the idea of legislating against the use of bad language in public when it seems common and acceptable on the media and in private seems a strange one.
But when in the context of Christian living you present these things as a matter simply of changes in the way words are viewed from one generation to another, my question is: have the standards of a society described by God as "perishing ... because the god of this world has blinded their minds" become acceptable standards for those who are "being made holy", whose "minds are being transformed" to be more Christ-like? Do we follow the society in which we live, or do we personally stand firm and set our minds on what is true, honourable, right, pure, lovely and admirable? Is allowing ourselves to become used to this terminology, the only way to relate to our society? I don't believe so. Are we afraid to be part of the "Christian Counterculture" that John Stott wrote of several decades ago? Is the Bible no longer the standard for living life as a Christian?

Got something to add?

  • Your Comment


Online Resources

subscribe to engage.mail

follow us

Latest Articles