What do you yell when you slam a car door on your fingers?
on Aug 19, 2014 · 15 comments

No profanityWhat do you yell when you slam a car door on your fingers? Or any other similar type pain if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid that unfortunate experience?

I can testify, having subjected my fingers to a closing car door more than once, I’ve said, “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” Aside from some tears and gritting of teeth, that was pretty much it.

The above scenario is often offered as proof that we all tend to use expletives in our life. Unlike me in times past, most people will offer up a choice exclamation upon experiencing a painful situation.

Some ask why Christian fiction is so anti-cussing? Why do so many Christians shy away from it?

This question has often been asked in comparison to other sins Christian fiction indulges in, like violence or gossip to name two. Indeed, compared to those types of sins, using a mild cuss word seems quite benign. Yet Christian readers will threaten to boycott Christian bookstores who carry anything with cussing in it while ignoring the titles with violence.

Part of it involves the Christian culture, especially among Evangelicals, who make up the bulk of the Christian market. Back in my Nazarene days, cussing was prohibited. One simply wasn’t considered holy/sanctified who used such language. Probably not even a Christian.

While I’ve realized in the last 18 years that not all cussing is sinful and it is a greater sin to judge someone’s spiritual condition based on the language they use, it points to the strong influence of such teachings like the one I grew up in as a Southern Baptist PK kid and my time in the Nazarene denomination. Good Christians simply didn’t cuss.

I recall a story the Christian comedian back in the 80s, Grady Nutt, once told. He and his friend made up their own bad words so they could cuss in their Baptist church with impunity. It only illustrates the influence of the Evangelical culture over what is acceptable.

However, I think it goes beyond the Christian culture. It has to do with what is considered crass.

Because most Christians who believe cussing to be sinful base it on verses like Colossians 3:8 . . .

But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.

The sinfulness of an expression is tied to whether it falls under “filthy communication” or not. Someone who considers it to refer to immoral subject matter and not a meaningless expletive, would not see most expletives as sinful. Maybe not fully socially acceptable in certain situations, but not sinful.

The catch is that what is considered crass and filthy in language can vary from one person to the next, one culture to the next, and one time period to the next. It is very relative.

It is why you don’t hear the word “occupy” used as a cuss word anymore.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, . . . the word occupy was commonly used to refer to the act of sexual penetration, which, among other things, places the Occupy Wall Street movement in a whole new light.

Swear Words Old and New on Slate (note: cuss words freely used)

Not only is that true, but in our culture, what is considered crass and shocking is no longer viewed that way by most people due to overuse. Even the F-bomb has lost much of its shock value and punch. Other words that were cussing when I was a kid don’t even cause the batting of an eye nowadays. Our culture shift has accelerated.

The most striking example its relativity is our cussing hypocrisy. Christians won’t tend to judge you a heathen if you say, “do-do, poop, doody,” but one mention of an alternate name for the same thing will have the deacons discussing your membership status. If you said, “Hades, that was bad,” you’d be more likely to get a laugh than a scowl.

Crassness and filthiness is based upon cultural factors, not the meanings. Culture assigns the connotations of a word that makes it crass.

Where does that leave us? One group doesn’t see many of these words as filthy while another does. Some Christians see that kind of language as reflecting their old life they were saved from. They view the use of those words as drawing them back to their unsaved lifestyle.

There’s the catch. Unlike reading about violence or gossip, reading cuss words, hearing it in our heads influences us to use them ourselves. The reason I didn’t yell a cuss word when I slammed my fingers in the car door is because I’d not been exposed to much of it. Not because I was a holy child, blessed with great self-control.

For those who consider it sin, they don’t want to be exposed to much of it, if any. While they shouldn’t judge those who don’t believe it to be a sin, those who don’t should be respectful of their sensitivity.

For better or for worse, the Christian book market has traditionally been a haven from such language. That is the culture and if it changes, it will be very slowly as cultural taboos on language change.

Do you seek to avoid profanity in your reading? Why or why not?

As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and The Virtual Chronicles series, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines.Learn more about R. L and his work at any of the following:Author Website, Author Blog, or Author Store.
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  1. bainespal says:

    I probably wouldn’t swear as a reaction to physical pain, and I also didn’t grow up with harsh language. However, I’ve adopted swearing when I’m feeling deeply cynical, mostly when I’m alone. Sometimes I do want to express my hopelessness and my disgust with life with the words that have the right weight, the right naked bitterness. I wish I had a social group that I felt comfortable swearing around.

    Not all swearing is frivolous or motivated by anger. Sometimes life is objectively feces. Sometimes the disgust and perversity of fornication is the best metaphor to describe an action or situation. Sometimes we have legitimate reason to compare something to eternal damnation, knowing full well the horror and despair that the metaphor evokes.

    Although I don’t need swearing in fiction, sometimes I do want it, because I want the empathy. I need a story to descend into my world that is made out of feces, in order to help me look up and see that there is meaning and hope. As a Christian, stories that reflect redemption and self-sacrifice in the uniquely Christian way are the strongest and most encouraging to me. So, I want Christian fiction that’s not afraid to swear.

    • notleia says:

      Heck, yes. Sometimes you need to be able to call a spade a spade. Or a pile of bullcrap a pile of bullcrap, like the justification for the police action in Ferguson.

  2. I avoid swearing in my books because I consider all the words in my books to ultimately come from me, the author.  I grew up in a Christian home, not exposed to expletives, and I don’t use those words normally.  Once in awhile if I watch a TV show with too much cussing I will use those words in my brain, and I don’t like that.  I don’t want to “acquire a taste” for dirty words.

    I can’t find the reference (argh) but I believe God’s word says we will give an account for every idle word we speak.  These days (in my non-fictional writing like blogs and online comments) I find myself more and more filtering out even the “tame” words like “darn” and “drat”, not because I think they are sinful to say, but because…what do they add to my words?  Why I am I saying them?  To be “cool?”  To express how I’m feeling more accurately?  They don’t add much, if anything, and certainly don’t make my words MORE edifying or godly.

    For my characters, though, I have them say whatever “tame” words they would naturally say under the circumstances, or I invent “swear words”, or I simply say “he swore” without showing what word was used.  When it comes to speculative fiction I think we can usually be realistic without using offensive language.  I understand when a Christian author feels free to use swear words for realism, so long as they are not gratuitous about it.  But for myself, I feel that because the words come from me (and because I write YA and hope to publish traditionally with a Christian press) I need to keep my fiction’s language clean.

  3. I generally read non-Christian novels, and as such, my reads have a smattering of swear words, depending on the genre. I’m generally not bothered by it, especially if used sparingly. One of my new favorite authors has very few swear words in her novels (and she’s published by ROC) but when they’re there, they’re there for a reason. I did get tired of reading Tom Clancy, when the F-word would appear 10 times a page during certain POVs. It just was too much.


    As for my own writing, even though I’m a Christian, I allow swearing in my own projects, with my editor’s blessing. They’re also not intended for a necessarily Christian-only audience. As long as the words aren’t forced in there for the sake of having profanity, as long as it occurs organically for the character speaking, I’m okay with having it in my own works. Do I worry a little what my evangelical friends may think? I am a member of a SBC church, after all. Yeah, maybe a little. But I hope they’ll see that I used it sparingly, as my new favorite author has as well.

  4. notleia says:

    My oversheltering father didn’t even like us saying “butt” and “stupid” as kids, so for me, part of claiming my own adulthood was grasping the full extent of language that I could use as my discretion dictated. Though my “corruption” took place over most of my college career, when I was in a place to get exposed and desensitized to the four-lettered words.

  5. LadyArin says:

    Personally, i don’t swear. There are reasons i don’t, reasons i would be okay with it if i did, situations in which i could conceive doing it, but at the present time i don’t. As far as writing goes, i occasionally use the “milder” curse words if the character is likely to use them.

    What i have trouble with, though, is the possibility that some day i will need to write a character who would naturally use extensive, harsh languages, including sexual references. It’s all very well to say “s/he swore” when your character is making an exclamatory remark, but what do you do when s/he would be using profanity in the middle of a speech? Cut the whole thing out? Leave out bits? Write out a milder form and hint in the narration that s/he used nasty words?

    So far i haven’t actually run into that, but i hope i manage to find a solution to it before i do.

  6. sparksofember says:

    My father swore a lot, before I was born and shortly thereafter. When he became a Christian he worked hard to stop, first by replacing the words and then gradually cutting them out. We were stationed overseas at the time and he has the equivalent of a yearbook for his squadron and under his name is printed, “cheese & crackers!”

    Because there was no swearing in our home growing up, I remember not even knowing some words were considered swear words. Things you can’t help but hear and pick up a vague meaning without knowing the connotation that makes them unacceptable to others. Like, screwed up, and bastard. I was shocked in my late teens when I learned the sexual connotation behind screwed up and what bastard actually meant. And fearful I had used those words around someone who might think I was swearing when I’d had no idea.

    My first thought at the beginning of this article was how I take issue with some who refuse to associate with swearing or substitute forms of it but have no issue with Christianized substitutes in other aspects of life. (Halloween, anyone?)

    But you are right about how exposure influences. I had a professor in college who swore like a sailor. I learned more language in that one semester than I had heard in my entire life previously. And the worst part was how the words filled my head and tumbled around in there.


  7. Julie D says:

    I grew up in a very ‘tame’ linguistic environment and am still rather uncomfortable with most swear words, whether they’re used for shock purposes or just because that’s how a person normally talks. On the other hand, I definitely feel that euphemisms aren’t bad of themselves–my brother says “fudge” (which my mom is still somewhat uncomfortable with) and I say “flip.”  Occasionally (though not as much anymore,) I think fuin, which is a Quenya term for gloomy.

    On the other hand, literature can become ridiculous if the same bans are in place. If someone grew up with no particular inhibitions on swears, they should talk like they realistically would.  And even for characters with ‘cleaner’ backgrounds, there are times where one good swear really conveys the situation (See TV Tropes ‘Precision F Strike’ for a summery)  And it doesn’t even have to be the dirtiest swear possible:

    Every time you’ve asked, I have been there. Where the hell were you today?

    –Eleven to River, Good Man Goes to War

    For example, I came up with a story prompt once that went

    I don’t know which pissed me off more: learning I was fictional or  learning I was dead.

    ‘Pissed’ seemed the only fitting word there–‘annoyed’ or ‘ticked me off’ is more appropriate for traffic tickets and mosquitoes,  and the character is not merely angry.

    • bainespal says:

      Occasionally (though not as much anymore,) I think fuin, which is a Quenya term for gloomy.

      Brilliant! An indigenous High Elvish four-letter f-bomb! That’s my smile for the day. 🙂

      I do like our geek secondary universe euphemisms. They feel far more authentic than bland real world euphemisms, because in the geek universes that we love more than our real world, they really may have weight. I’m fond of the Galactican frak.

      • I love the Quenya “swear” too.  How funny. 😀  This is why I like inventing the swear words for my books.  It gives the people from that world a touch of realism.  My futuristic book has “scap” and “frit” (which, like many real swears, get tweaked into many forms – my favorite is when they say “fritters”…all I can think of are apple fritters!).  They’re totally made up words that mean nothing, and yet convey the same mood as some real swear words do.  Win-win!  😀

        I agree with Julie, too, that sometimes there’s a spot where no other word quite fits or expresses the same tone.  I think in that case using a dirty word is acceptable.  The Apostle Paul did so in a few cases!

  8. Becky says:

    I think this issue is especially difficult when one is trying to write military characters. I recently wrote a military scifi short story and got so tired of having to tone down one of my characters’ language. Being the person I created her to be, and experiencing the situations I put her in, she would swear a blue streak! I felt the “tamed” language diminished her realism.

    What should a Christian author do in a situation like this?

  9. merechristian says:

    A few things to consider. First of all, the son of a serpent thing Christ said has implications. Secondly, if you consider the customs of the hands to do certain functions and so on, that are in the Mideast and Asia (I think so there too) and have been since time immemorial, it gives new meaning to “turn the other cheek” or where God talks in Psalms 3 about shaming some by hitting the cheek hard enough to break their teeth apart.

    My most basic problem is that this makes the standard rather arbitrary. Let’s face it, someone will be offended with what we say. I would interpret the verse to not being unncessarily provocative, but I don’t think it means to never use certain words. You are right that standards change, but I think that something right to use or talk about one era is right in any other. In certain forums, we must be cautious, but my main beef with the “wholesome” no swearing/no sex/no anything crowd is that stuff we KNOW Paul and other early Christians read would not be read today, but condemned by Christians. How is it right to read some pretty heady and bawdy stuff for the early Christians, but not us? Or to use certain words?

    Granted, some words are not professional and can’t be used there, but I think that to be too exclusive and restrictive with these verses is the same theological mistake as folks make with the “weaker brother” argument, whereby we give into fantasy forbidders by not talking of something they are “weak towards”. The better argument is to be sensitive but expect them to grow the heck up.

    About the military character, well, I’d have her swear. Either directly, or in the idea that “she cussed”, “she swore”, so on. Some don’t swear, but the military culture is very filled with cussing. That is unavoidable to be realistic.

  10. Mark Carver says:

    My Christian-market books have a high PG/low PG-13 amount of swearing in them, simply because the situation would be artificial without it. But I try not to cross into gratuity (at least as I perceive it). However, I’m writing a secular story now about a bunch of roughnecks and I have to resist the urge to make every third word a cuss word, since that would be exactly how they would talk. My co-writer is a former roughneck and he’ll write passages that I’ll have to scrub a bit. I would personally feel convicted about putting something out there with a heavy amount of swear words, even if it would be realistic.

What do you think?