June 25, 2017

Is Profanity Ever Appropriate?

Don Johnson

The recent furor over Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty is a matter of much discussion on the inter web lately. I think everything that needs to be said has already been said somewhere by someone, so I feel no need to add much to that discussion. However, the incident raised the issue of profanity among some. As quoted in the news, Mr. Robertson used some language that some considered crude, vulgar, or even profane.

This raises several questions in my mind. What is profanity? (Or “crude,” or “vulgar?”) Was the language used actually profane or not? Even if profane, was it appropriate or inappropriate for the situation? Or, as I ask in my title, “Is Profanity Ever Appropriate?”

On such a subject we must start with definitions. What is profanity, after all? dictionary.com gives us some idea with the meaning of profane:


· characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious.

· not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred ).

· unholy; heathen; pagan: profane rites.

· not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons.

· common or vulgar.

—verb (used with object)

· to misuse (anything that should be held in reverence or respect); defile; debase; employ basely or unworthily.

· to treat (anything sacred) with irreverence or contempt; violate the sanctity of: to profane a shrine.

To put it more simply, a definition of the verb recalled from one of my teachers long ago: “to make that which is holy common or ordinary; to profane.” Thus men profane God by making his name a common curse. In Quebec, a common curse is “tabernac” – a French word for “church.” We are all aware of this very common practice.

The term profanity is thus narrower in precise definition than in common usage. We consider certain euphemisms for excrement to be profane as well, or at least “swear words” – along with “hell” and “damn” and other expressions that stand for these less than holy subjects. What is it that makes these “bad words” in our hearing?

These terms may fit more precisely under other categories, synonyms of a sort for profanity, like vulgarism, obscenity, or euphemism (and even these terms don’t completely exhaust the subject). In reverse order, a

euphemism is “a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive, and often misleading terms for things the user wishes to dissimulate or downplay. Euphemisms are used for dissimulation, to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, excretion, and death) in a polite way, and to mask profanity.” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphemism))

an obscenity is “any statement or act which strongly offends the prevalent morality of the time. It is derived from the Latin obscaena (offstage) a cognate of the Ancient Greek root skene, because some potentially offensive content, such as murder or sex, was depicted offstage in classical drama. The word can be used to indicate a strong moral repugnance, in expressions such as ‘obscene profits’ or ‘the obscenity of war’.” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obscenity))

and last, a vulgarism is “an expression or usage considered non-standard or characteristic of uneducated speech or writing. In colloquial or lexical English, ‘vulgarism’ or ‘vulgarity’ may be synonymous with profanity or obscenity, but a linguistic or literary vulgarism encompasses a broader category of perceived fault not confined to scatological or sexual offensiveness.” ((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgarism)) A vulgarity may be profane, but the term can carry a broader implication of ignorance and lower social class and/or inferior breeding.

From these definitions we note that some terms are considered to be offensive or impolite, immoral, low, or mean. Such terms can be profane because while their subject is not sacred, their subject matter is considered offensive and to speak directly of them is beneath the norms of social acceptability.

These examples from the Wikipedia article on euphemisms show us how taboo or offensive subjects are given a polite gloss in normal conversation (please note that we use these comments as illustrations, we do not like to promote this kind of language in any context):

“Euphemisms may be used to avoid words considered rude, while conveying their meaning: ‘Kiss my you-know-what!’ instead of the more vulgar, ‘Kiss myass/arse’; the expletive sugar to substitute shit. Some euphemisms are so commonly used as to be standard usage: ‘pass away’ for ‘die’. Over the centuries euphemisms have been introduced for ‘latrine’, and themselves replaced as they came to be considered unacceptable; ‘toilet’, once itself a euphemism, is often euphemised as ‘bathroom’, ‘restroom’, etc. Euphemisms are used to downplay and conceal unpalatable facts, as ‘collateral damage’ for ‘civilian casualties’ in a military context, and ‘redacted’ for ‘censored’.”

I recently had contact with a contracting crew working at a remote location. A portable outhouse was provided for everyone’s use. In this case, the ‘euphemisms’ in use were much more vulgar than the more polite ‘outhouse’. It was jarring to have regular contact with vulgar profanity pouring out of mouths as a matter of course.

Some terms have a legitimate arena of polite usage. A clinical setting, for example, precise medical terminology is often used with no offense intended or taken by the hearers. The words used by Phil Robertson in his GQ interview are just like this – they have a polite usage in certain contexts, but outside that context, they are jarring to the ear. In short, they can become vulgar and we normally use euphemisms instead of such terms. In short, I think those who object to the blunt crudity of Robertson’s remarks have a point: his use of the terms fall into the category of vulgarities, perhaps almost into the realm of obscenity, and thus become profanities as a result.

There may still be a question as to whether such vulgarities ever have a place in making a point. When used, they certainly get everyone’s attention, we “slow down” on the highway of life to look over to the shoulder at the “verbal wreck” lying along the side of the road. Some are arguing that we need this kind of shock to restore a sense of disgust over homosexuality and its degrading behaviours. To criticize Robertson, they allege, is to play into the hands of the homosexual lobby that wishes to turn the issue into something as innocuous as left- or right-handedness. Thus, they applaud Robertson’s blunt talk.

We live in a world of opinions and one can find plenty of arguments up and down all sides of this issue. Perhaps it might be helpful to turn to the Word of God to find some authority for our opinions.

Matthew 12:36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.

Ephesians 5:3 But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; 4 Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.

Ephesians 5:11 And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. 12 For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. 13 But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.

Would you say that the way we speak about shameful behaviour is as important as reproving and rebuking shameful behaviour? I think these texts give us the answer to the question. I understand and accept the point about not playing into the homosexual agenda. It is important that we speak the truth about that abomination. The behaviour is disgusting and unnatural.

But must the discourse descend to the gutter in order to fight against the ‘double-speak’ of the pro-homosexual propaganda? There are coarse euphemisms for homosexuals as well. Are those defending the language of Mr. Robertson suggesting we employ those terms in order to maintain the “yuck factor?”

Colossians 4:6 Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

Update: As I write, I am aware that Mr. Robertson has been reinstated by his network. I suppose we are to presume that all is now well with the world and a victory for righteousness has been won.

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