What are “bad words” and why are they bad?
My daughter is 6. She is pretty sheltered, but as her exposure to the world widens and her vocabulary expands, she will start to notice some language that we don’t want her to repeat. This has got me thinking about how best to explain to her why some words are “bad.”
Parental advisories for TV shows, movies, music, etc. usually address sexual content, violence, “adult” themes (including substance abuse), and language. Problematic language can include swearing, cursing, “cussing,” profanity, obscenities, and maybe some other similar words such as expletives or “strong” language. Are these all synonyms or do they have different meanings? Why should such words be avoided?
Let’s start with some definitions:
Cursing (aka “cussing”): To curse someone is to wish something bad upon them. It is not our place to condemn (“damn”) anyone or anything. We are not the Creator. God says “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Hebrews 10:30, Romans 12:19, Deuteronomy 32:35). Rather, we are called to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27,35, Romans 12:20).
Swearing: To swear on or by something is to denote the seriousness (solemnity) of our statement by association with the seriousness of the object/place/person being sworn on or by. We have an obligation to speak truthfully at all times. Attempting to make some speech more impactful by accentuating it with “swearing” implies that our words themselves are insufficient and casts doubt on our commitment to be truthful in everything we say. Instead of showing our “seriousness” by drawing on the seriousness of something outside of ourselves, we should simply let our “Yes be yes and our No, No” (Matthew 5:33-36, James 5:12).
Profanity: The essence of profanity is treating anything holy and sacred as if it were not. Profane speech is speech that does not show God the reverence he deserves. The name of God is holy and must be treated with reverence (Deuteronomy 10:20). To use God’s name in a trivial manner (Exodus 20:7) or to associate God with anything that is not true profanes his name (Leviticus 19:12); it sullies his perfect righteousness and dishonors him.
Obscenity: Something that is obscene is something that is put on display that should not be put on display (Ephesians 5:12). Most often, this has to do with things of a sexual nature. Part of keeping the bed of marriage undefiled (Hebrews 13:4) is keeping it private. Sexual intimacy is not something to be shared or brought out in public (Ezekiel 16:36, 23:18) or even talked about in a way that destroys its intimacy (Ephesians 5:4).
Vulgarity: If any “bad” words could be defended, it would be those in this last category. After all, the original meaning of “vulgar” was simply “characteristic of or belonging to the masses,” which was why the churchmen who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646 advocated for the Scriptures “to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation.” However, the more modern definition of vulgarity is of things that are tasteless, crass, crude, and generally offensive. This could involve some overlap with the previous categories, but I am thinking primarily of words that do not fall into one of the other categories. This would include scatological terms that are generally recognized as being indecent. One might argue that this falls into the category of “filthy language” prohibited by Colossians 3:8. The contents of this category could be more subject to the changing standards of what is considered “decent,” but Christians should always seek to be polite, courteous, kind, and avoid speech that is not wholesome or gracious (Ephesians 4:29, Colossians 4:6). What comes out of our mouth is an indicator of what is in our inmost being, and our hearts and minds should be saturated with things that are pure and lovely (Philippians 4:8).
Other: Perhaps you can think of “bad” words that don’t seem to fall into one of the categories above. An example might be certain words that demean a person’s parentage. The admonitions to love our neighbor, love our enemy, and speak wholesome, gracious words extend to this “other” category also.
My article “Bad Language” begins on the bottom of p.3 in “Consider This.” There are some similarities.