by Daniel A. Lord, Don’t Swear Like That!
Part Two is here.
Cursing and profanity have become so common that now they are often simply lumped together with slang.
Many a woman in confession startles the young confessor by saying, ‘I accuse myself of using slang words. Ten to one she does not mean such slang as ‘Cut it out!…Beat it, kid!…That’s just baloney!…What’s cookin’? She has in mind some sort of profanity, speech that consists of the sacred names of God, the places mentioned in Sacred Scriptures-hell, for obvious example-and those imperative verbs which in short compass include the ultimate ruin of the soul and its arrival in the place of eternal despair.
She means that she has taken very sacred, important, or terrible words and made them as common as the slang expressions she tosses about with the rest of her common-place conversation.
Pearls and Serpents
Whenever in my hearing a woman purposelessly and from casual habit swears, I think of the ancient parable or fable of the two sisters. One, you remember, was kind to the witch from the woods. The second, on the other hand, sullenly and insolently refused the witch the drink that she asked. So it happened that from the lips of the generous sister fell, with each word she spoke, a diamond, a ruby, or a pearl. (I don’t know which jewel corresponded to noun, verb, adjective.) When the selfish sister spoke, you will recall, each word brought from her mouth a toad, a frog, or a serpent.
All the fables have a remarkable element of truth about them. So when I hear gentle speech fall from the lips of a cultured woman, I think of the falling jewels. And when from red-accented lips falls a flood of cheap oaths and common vulgarities, I think, as all decent men must, of cascading vermin and reptiles.
The Man Curses
But the fact that oaths and curses are used by a man rather than by a woman doesn’t essentially change their sooty, smelly character.
Recently I was eating in the diner of an east-bound train. Into the diner walked a crowd of baseball players, members of an important eastern major-league team. Like most really outstanding athletes in private life, they were soft-spoken, quite, unobtrusive, and inclined to keep their champion strength under wraps. They took their places at tables in back of me and began low-voiced conversations.
Then into their talk was injected a new voice-loud, strident, aggressively profane. Every sentence was begun with the Holy Name or ended with an oath or a curse. I looked back, surprised that the manager travelling with the team would tolerate such speech.
Leaning on the table was a well-past-middle-aged sailor in the uniform of the lowest grade. Clearly he’d been to sea for long years. Clearly, too, he was the type that would end his career still second-class, without distinguishing stripes or marks. But to prove that, despite his obvious failure in the navy, he was full of superior manhood, he flooded the diner with oaths and curses and vulgarity that made everyone in the car shudder.
Can We Blame the War? Or the Army?
It would be comforting and soul-easing to blame on the war the increase of swearing among us. Probably all defective human conduct during the next generation will be blamed on the war. It’s such an easy ‘out. Swearing has been, of course, from time immemorial part of the soldierly swagger.
Yet, though many a soldier swears, has sworn, and on a battlefield and in camp will continue to swear, oaths and curses are not part of army issue or equipment. I remember being much impressed by a series of photographic posters got out by the army and navy academies for our future officers. One of these in strongest terms stated that swearing and evil language were utterly foreign to an officer and a gentleman.
A Slow Growth
Actually swearing as it exists today has nothing to do with the war. It has grown up along with the general loss of faith, which means that the words used in oaths and curses have come to mean next to nothing. It is part of the collapse of culture, which reached its depths in Germany and in Russia and in the foul language of the totalitarian armies.
Time was when only the commonest men in association with their ilk used that sort of language. Usually they got away someplace where no one else could hear their talk. Today such words have passed into the vocabularies of apparently cultured men-and whether or not women are present seems to make little difference.
Is Swearing Funny?
For some reason the world has decided that when a woman swears she runs a fair chance of being funny.
We expect, you see, gentle and lovely speech from women. Your dear old aunt Susie suddenly ripping forth a lusty ‘Damn! may seem laughable. On the other hand, you may to your horror decide that the precious old soul has gone mad. If there is laughter here at all, it is because a woman cursing or swearing seems so utterly out of place, so entirely out of character.
On the general principle that swearing is funny, all sorts of dramatic scenes today struggle for laughs through some one of the characters unexpectedly uttering a lusty ‘Hell! or ‘Damn!
Indeed, as the supply of really good comedians dwindled and the authors who could write funny lines and amusing situations disappeared, the producers on Broadway began to depend more and more on the use of the Holy Name for laughs and on round oaths to awaken sleeping audiences into startled guffaws. Some theatrical lightweights decided that a blistering oath was funny, even though most of the audiences don’t find them at all funny.
A Writer Accedes
It was the fine Irish Catholic actress, Una O’Connor, who once took matters into her hands on the New York stage. One of the most famous of the authors was producing a play, the climax of which came when the heroine, distraught, rushed about the stage, screaming the Holy Name.
Miss O’Connor listened as long as she could. Then she quietly approached the author.
‘I wonder, she asked, ‘if you have any idea how the use of the Savior’s name tears us Catholics to pieces. You are much too clever a writer to need to end a scene on a situation that will simply torture the nerves of a large section of your audience. Can’t you rewrite that scene and omit the name of the dear Lord?
The scene was rewritten-and vastly improved thereby.
A Meaningless Word
As a matter of fact, the constant use of the oaths and curses has resulted in their losing all meaning. The word damn means less than nothing to most people who use it or hear it. It has become a synonym for very, very much or a great deal. So a man can with amusing inconsistency be ‘damn hot or ‘damn cold. Even more ridiculously, though he can be ‘hot as hell, he doesn’t hesitate to announce that he is ‘cold as hell. The first is a pretty good term of comparison; the second is just about the world’s most slovenly comparison.
A man finds one thing ‘damn funny and another ‘damn sad. Lacking an adequate vocabulary to express degrees of feelings, he modifies everything by damn and compares everything to hell or the devil, thus achieving nothing more than proof of his poverty of speech and his total inability to handle the English language.
Even damn is incorrect. If he knew anything, he’d at least use the participle, damned, and not the verb, damn.
Cursing Can Be Terrible
As I announced in the beginning, it is not my intention to try to make clear the various forms of cursing; nor am I discussing the degrees of evil or sinfulness of various curses. What we are considering is how a Christian, a Catholic, ought to regard the use of profane language. For that matter, how should a cultured, educated person look at it?
Yet we cannot overlook the fact that there can be occasions in which, and peoples among whom, cursing might be something very terrible, a mortal sin in the very nature of the case. So, too, under such circumstances oaths can become significant and sinful.
Men have lifted their hands in an oath that called upon God to witness as truth the lies they told. In the middle of a road or in a market place, in some small fishing boat or in the smoking car of a train men have demanded that God come and stand sponsor for their evil speech, their slandering of character, some trivial thing that was unworthy of the notice of God.
Usually they were men of twisted faith, men who still believed in God but who could yet insult Him with demands that were sinful or beneath His consideration.
‘By God, man! I’m telling you the truth which I say this watch cost me twenty dollars. . . .Before the Savior, these goods are just as I guarantee them to be! . . .By Our Lady, he’s a liar! And I’m warning you.
By the Savior . . .
For most people, however, the use of the names of God and of Jesus Christ signifies little. Such usage is the sign of a complete lack of faith. God means nothing to them any more. Christ has lost all value in their eyes. So the Holy Names are tossed about in careless indifference.
Fanny Hurst established a custom for novelists years ago when she let her cheap characters use, not the full Holy Name, but merely the abbreviated form, “jeez”. Miss Hurst herself, when she used this, pointed out that the constant use of the name had completely dulled the users to any sense of its importance, or even to the meaning of the word they flung about.
But in somewhat the same way children have forgotten that “gee whiz” was originally a parody on Jesus Christ. For that matter, most origins are soon forgotten. How many realize that “hocus-pocus,” the magic formula used by magicians, originated in a Protestant parody on ‘Hoc est corpus meum?
“Who shall blame a child whose soul turns eagerly to the noise and distraction of worldliness, if his parents have failed to show him that love and peace and beauty are found only in God?” – Mary Reed Newland, http://amzn.to/2mTKR3w (afflink)
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That was extremely informative! Thank you very much. I knew about the hocus pocus but not some of the others. 🙁
And after reading all that, Blessed be the names of Jesus and Mary!
The saddest part of all is that if anyone points out what’s behind this “slang”, they laugh… One of the most horrible expressions I’ve heard in movies and from ignorant people is the use of “baptizing” meaning “vomiting”…
“A man finds one thing ‘damn funny and another ‘damn sad. Lacking an adequate vocabulary to express degrees of feelings, he modifies everything by damn and compares everything to hell or the devil, thus achieving nothing more than proof of his poverty of speech and his total inability to handle the English language.
Even damn is incorrect. If he knew anything, he’d at least use the participle, damned, and not the verb, damn.” I loved this!!!! Excellent.
And yes, very informative article. Leane, I’ve still lost my subscription to you, I’m not getting daily emails with posts, how do I get that back?
I liked the story about the actress who got the writer to change that offensive scene. That’s a great example of courage for these times!
This reminds me of a story Will Smith has told multiple times. As a young man, he would write lyrics to his songs in his “rap book” and at the time, they included copious amounts of curses and gross descriptions of sexual encounters, etc.
Well, his grandmother found this book. But being a classy lady, she didn’t mention it to him. She simply wrote him a note in the book saying, “Dear Willard, truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves.” And then she listed all the words she didn’t think were appropriate for him to use. “‘Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are. Love, Gigi.’”
I’ve always loved this story. And Will took it to heart, as most of his lyrics don’t contain the vulgarity that mainstream music (of any genre, not just rap) contains.