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Soap Out That Mouth! the Usage of Bad Language

by William L. Esser, IV

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  • Description:
    In this article, William Esser explains, with quotes from Scripture, the harm done to oneself and others by the use of bad language. He divides bad language into three categories and states why it is wrong to speak in such a manner. He also gives some suggestions on how to break the habit.
  • Larger Work:
    The Catholic Faith
  • Pages: 24-26
  • Publisher & Date:
    Ignatius Press, March/April 2000

What did you just say?!?! You Come Here, Right This Second!! Now, you march yourself off to the bathroom, take that bar of soap, and wash your mouth out until it's good and clean. And don't let me EVER hear words like that coming out of your mouth again!"

So little Ralphie (taken from that modern holiday classic "A Christmas Story,"— "You'll shoot your eye out") is sent off to contemplate the mysteries of life over a mouthful of Ivory. Meanwhile, we sit downstairs lamenting and wondering where in the world he could have managed to pick up words like that. And just as in the movie, the culprit is often staring back at us from his silent vantage point on the other side of the mirror. The same words that shock us coming from children seem to flow without a second thought from our very lips. Why is that?

"I assure you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of God." Matthew 18:2. It is time for us to get some soap of our own.

Bad language (also known as "four letter words", foul language, profanity, swearing, and cursing) can be divided into three categories. First, there is the misuse of the sacred. Using God's Name in vain, damning people and things to hell, reviling heaven, and blaspheming all fit into this category (the sacred category). While very frequently abused, this is also the easiest category to address. Simply put, the Second Commandment ("Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain") prohibits any such misuse.

Second, there are the words, which refer to the excretory functions of the body (the excretory category). In common usage, they are rarely spoken for their underlying meaning. (When was the last time you walked down the street and heard somebody yell, "Excrement!"). Instead, they are used as derogatory expletives to insult and show contempt, or merely as conversation fillers. As insults, they are forbidden by Christ's commandment to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:31). As verbal fillers, they are divorced from their meaning and fail to comport with a Christian standard of language. "Let your speech be always gracious and in good taste, and strive to respond properly to all who address you" (Colossians 4:6).

The third and final category is composed of those words, which refer to the sexual organs or the act of sex itself (the sexual category). All of these words are derogatory, treating sex solely as a means of pleasure and reducing the human person to a mere object. Like the excretory words, most of them are used as insults or mere utterances devoid of any relation to the meaning of the word.

Now that we have defined the three categories, let's address some of the most common reasons people give for using bad language.

I Don't Mean Anything Bad By The Words

Well, speech is our way of communicating as social beings and words have meanings. When you casually say "Oh my God," you're using the divine name, whether or not you mean anything by it. When you curse using words from the sexual category, you denigrate the most intimate of unions, the act whereby two become one and God brings new life into the world.

Simply because there is no harm in your heart doesn't make this action right. Society would not long tolerate a person constantly uttering racial epithets, regardless of the intention behind the words, and neither should we tolerate profanity. "Let not your mouth become used to coarse talk, for in it lies sinful matter" (Sirach 23:13).

It's Just A Habit

We certainly are creatures of habit. Some of these include smoking, drug abuse, lying and a host of other things. The critical distinction is that cursing is a bad habit, one, which we should strive to overcome. Christ calls us to be perfect as He is perfect. Can you picture yourself using bad language in front of Jesus, "the Lord of all speech"? (CCC 2152). Or even in front of your parents or children for that matter? "Nor should there be any obscene, silly, or suggestive talk; all that is out of place" (Ephesians 5:4).

It's Cool And Makes Me Popular

Popularity can be a very good thing, but only if it is achieved through good and noble deeds. As Christians, our goal is to follow Jesus, not to seek popularity. "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own; the reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world. But I chose you out of the world" (John 15:19). Placing popularity before Christ's commands is a serious wrong.

Oh, Come On! It Doesn't Hurt Anybody!

To the contrary, it hurts many people. First of all, you hurt yourself. "A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives" (Sirach 23:15). Abusing the sacred is directly sinful. Use of the excretory and sexual categories distorts our view of creation and fills our mind with thoughts, which keep us from God. "The tongue defiles the entire body" (James 3:6). For a soul is like an empty glass and bad language like pebbles. The purpose of a glass is to hold water. But as we fill our glass with pebbles, there is less and less room for Jesus, the water of salvation. "If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is deceived; his worship is pointless" (James 1:26).

Second, you hurt those around you by leading them to use bad language. This is exactly how little Ralphie got himself in trouble. He heard bad language repeated over and over, until he began to feel that it was normal and began using it himself. Leading others into sin through example is a grievous wrong (CCC 2284). "Scandal will inevitably arise, but woe to him through whom they come. He would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck than giving scandal to one of these little ones" (Luke 17:1-2).

Christ's message to us is clear. In order to become perfect, we must give ourselves completely to Him. Every thought and word should be spent in His service, and controlling our tongues is an integral part of this struggle. "If a person is without fault in speech he is a man in the fullest sense, because he can control his entire body" (James 3:2). Now, it may not be easy to overcome the use of bad language, particularly if it has become habitual. Even the Bible acknowledges how easy it is to use bad words unintentionally. "[A] man can slip and not mean it; who has not sinned with his tongue?" (Sirach 19:15). So here are a few tips to help you gain control over your speech:

a) Pay attention to what you say and the manner in which you say it. "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from trouble" (Proverbs 21:23). The old rule of counting before you speak can come in very handy. "O Lord, set a watch before my mouth, a guard at the door of my lips" (Psalm 141:3).

b) Do not allow bad language in your thoughts, for it is from the mind that words originate. The only way to kill a weed is by getting at the root, and the only way to control the mouth is by first controlling the brain.

c) Ask those around you to refrain from using bad language. By doing this, you keep these words out of your mind and help others to break their evil habits.

d) Avoid movies, television shows and books, which use excessive language. Frequent exposure to cursing is the easiest way to fall into the habit of using bad language.

Most of all, however, pray about it, for without God's help we can do nothing. May we every day join in praying that each act, word and deed of our lives may be done in the service of the Lord. "Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:15).

William Esser is a recent graduate of Notre Dame Law School and is currently working as a law clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He can be reached via email at [email protected] For those interested in a secular viewpoint on the use of bad language, he recommends the website of the Cuss Control Academy:

© The Catholic Faith", Ignatius Press, 2515 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94118, 1-800-651-1531.

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