Good Words, Bad Words
The goal of language in the mouth of a Christian isn’t to hold power for ourselves but to give it.
“I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.” I heard the words from a caller on a morning show years ago, and I’ve known it to be the mantra of many since. I feel the need to start off with the disclaimer that I don’t typically “cuss a little.” It’s not that I’m never angry, or my sin doesn’t manifest itself in other ways, but in my home growing up, “bad words” just weren’t used—not even “heck” or “gosh.” My knee-jerk reaction isn’t to proclaim bad words. To yell out an expletive is about as natural to me as shouting out a foreign language.
And yet, it’s probably good to define how we got these categories in the language of words that are “bad” and words that are “good.” Specific swear words are not laid out in Scripture, probably because they vary from language to language. They often involve some crudeness or twisting something good, like sex, body parts, and so forth, into something that is no longer good.
But using good words is not as simple as removing the “bad” words from our vocabulary. I live in the midwest, a place known for “Minnesota nice,” otherwise known as passive-aggressiveness. We are really good at saying really mean things in really nice ways if we want to. Other places, like down South, they say things like “bless your heart!” which is code for “aren’t you stupid!” We can twist good words to mean something bad easily while avoiding “the list.”
As I was writing this, I spoke with a cousin who lived for years in Japan, and I asked her if there were any cuss words in Japan. She said no, Japanese is a “high context” language, as opposed to Dutch or German which is a “low context” language. Those would be two ends of the context extremes, with languages like Greek being somewhere in the middle. In a low context language, the burden is on the speaker to say the precise words that need no context to understand. In contrast, in a high context language, body language, looks, circumstances, tone, matter more. In Japanese, they don’t use swear words. They use swear looks or tones. Sometimes silence says a lot.
Therefore, when defining good words and bad words, it would be over-simplistic to remove words from their context before deeming them good or bad. It could be said that in most languages, context plays a greater role in defining a word as “good” or “bad” than the actual word itself.
To reduce “bad” words to simply certain specific words is to lower God’s law on the matter. By nature, sin splinters what is good into various forms of bad speech: lying, gossiping, mocking, talk that twists what is holy.
Bad words are defined in each language, ethnicity, and culture. Like many sins, it is tempting to draw clear lines to follow, as defined by our culture only. But that would be to come up short of the heart of the law. God’s law is for all people, not just English speakers.
Like the sabbath rules, the religious Jews added addendums to God’s call to rest for the purpose of clearing things up or simplifying. It drew the focus on Israel to follow certain man-made rules, rather than understand the purpose of the sabbath. It broke down the law into manageable pieces. They thought that following man-made, cultural clarifications would make them more righteous, when in fact, it only made them more self-righteous. Likewise, it might be tempting to define which words are culturally “good” and “bad,” but the deeper question might be, what is the purpose of language? What is the purpose of words? Are we using them for the purpose intended?
A Battle of Words: Speaking Correctly with William the Conquerer
It might be interesting to look at the history of how English has defined “good” and “bad” language. If you are an English speaker, the words you define as “bad” became “bad” around 1066, when William the Conquerer invaded England and changed the English language forever. Before 1066, English was a part of the Germanic language families (the Anglo-Saxon roots) with a strong Germanic grammar system and a strong Germanic vocabulary.
When William the Conquerer took power in 1066 BCE/AD, he brought the French-based (Latin language family) delicate language with him to his royal court. As the two language families fused, the elite people in the court spoke French. But among the common people, the Germanic grammar structure stayed, and people started using the more popular Latin vocabulary to impress those in power. This language family fusion is why English is one of the more difficult languages to learn.
Not only did people start using the Latin vocabulary in their Germanic grammar, but Germanic words became more vulgar, less than, and not as royal and well-bred. Many of the “bad” words we know are simply the Germanic versions of other Latin-based words we are fine with using in everyday life without calling it “swearing.” For instance, the French (Latin-based) word for dung is “poupe,” and the old Anglo-Saxon English (German-based) was “schyt.” If you have ever joked, “that German word sounds like a curse word,” this is why. William the Conquerer trained your ear that way, as a means to vulgarize or make dirty the people he was conquering, and make his language not just correct, but morally superior. In fact, the word “vulgar” has the word origin “not-Latin” or “common word.”
In essence, “who controls the language” has often been a battleground of its own. The final step to conquering another culture is often forbidding their native tongue. Better jobs are given to those who can “speak correctly” with the “better accents” using “the correct words.” How we speak can be a symbol of status, favoring whatever ethnic group—whatever dialect—holds power. It’s a story that has repeated itself throughout history, on every continent, over and over again.
Even when studying dialects within languages and different ways of saying things, even in different regions, linguists and grammarians argue over and theorize which dialect do you proclaim the “correct” grammar for the language? Does history deem what is correct? If that is true, all of us are spelling badly. Does the majority deem what is correct? Does the ethnic group in power deem what is correct? By what metric should we deem words “good” or “bad”?
All of this matters because we are called to love our neighbor and communicate the gospel to the ends of the earth. The goal of language in the mouth of a Christian isn’t to hold power for ourselves but to give it. To give the gospel, to share the depth of the love of God is to hand over the goods of the most powerful force on earth (the love of God) to the most undeserving.
To do this, we must use words, and word definitions seem to change like waves on the water. This was true even in ancient cultures. Aristotle and many of the great philosophers first had to define their terms before entering a debate because different terms mean different things to different people. Words come with baggage.
So then, is loving one’s neighbor through speech simply flattering them and telling them nice things all the time? No, it is telling them the truth within the context of love. For anyone who has ever tried, it’s harder than it looks.
Traditional Means of Teaching Communication:
The battle of “good words” and “bad words” is steeped in history and one culture conquering another. Languages across cultures differentiate classes, peoples, and the “status” of our neighbors. And every language changes constantly, as the correct way to speak changes quickly with the leadership in power. The only languages that don’t change are called “dead” because living cultures are no longer using them. The words have no life unless they are embodied in a living speaker.
To proclaim the gospel, each generation must speak the truth they know in ever-changing languages. Each generation needs their theologians, and each generation needs their preachers because God gave us living languages to work with. The way he has structured living languages requires that we train each generation in this art of loving the person in front of you and speaking truth to a living, breathing, unique person. It’s not that truth changes with each generation, but the words communicating those truths often do. This is the living nature of language. It’s almost as if languages have a default built into them to change often enough that each generation must proclaim the gospel and cannot depend upon the language of the previous generation to do the work of discipleship for them. Studying the previous generations helps us understand the truth as they understood it—the concepts. Studying the people we are called to love in front of us helps us choose the correct words to communicate that truth.
One of the first rules of good rhetoric is to know who your audience is. Think of how Paul spoke differently to the philosophers than he did to other disciples. Why would it be important to know who the audience is to give the truth with love? The person you are speaking the truth to might be from a different country. They may have particular objections to the gospel. They have unique hurt, and unique sin. Different words will have different baggage. In order to love them well with the message, we must know them.
We could further ask, do we reach people with the gospel message, or do we feel we must first get them to transfer over to our version of “correct language” before they are suitable for it?
We will ask again: are there “good words” and “bad words”? That’s a complicated question. There are means of communicating in selfish ways and means of communicating in loving ways. There are ways of communicating that are harsh and ways of communicating that are loving.
It’s not that we shouldn’t classify individual words as “bad,” but just that it’s lazy or incomplete to view language in that way. Instead of defining words as good or bad by their sound, origin, class, or history, we should define good and bad by a word’s context.
Words are highly relational. What might be appropriate for a black man to say to another black man, or even a husband to a wife, a mother to a child, might not be appropriate in other circumstances. Context matters. That is not to say that words are bad if they offend, as the truth often offends people. The words are bad if they twist what is good and holy into something bad—if they profane.
You might think, if all words have baggage, if context always matters, and words must be fit for the audience they are intended, we can easily throw up our hands and say “impossible!” No one can be that careful. No one accomplish that much through language.
In times of discouragement, when I feel I have no good words to give, that every word is tainted in some way, in some context, I think of the master of words, the Lord of language, the one who calls himself “the Word.” I think of the Spirit, literally breaking down the barriers of language, so that everyone hears in their own language—their own dialect, for the purpose of hearing the forgiveness of sins—the un-profaning Word.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5, CSV).
Not only is Jesus the good, embodied, living Word, not only is he the perfect truth, given in perfect context of love, but he untwists the profane. He rights what was wronged. As he received our profanity, our curses, our twisting of everything that was holy, up on that cross, our sins died with him, and he rose again as the Word in a language that would not die, as his Spirit lives in us.