What’s in a Word?

Cuss-JarI used a cuss word in last Sunday’s message.  Actually, two of them.  Or maybe just one of them (depending on how you view it).  I was talking about Ephesians 4:29 which says “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

My point was there’s a difference between cursing and cursing someone.  For example, there’s a difference between saying “damn” and “damn you” or saying “hell” and “you can go to hell.”  I was trying to connect cussing to the verse by pointing out that 95% of the time we use these words were doing exactly what Ephesians 4:29 tells us not to do.

Of course, that brought up another question.  What about the other 5% of the time?  Are all occurrences of cussing wrong or only those that are used in a way to tear others down?  For instance, can I say “damn” when I stub my toe without fear of damnation?  Or can I use “hell” to describe how hot it is outside without fear of being sent there?  These are the questions that keep fundamental Christians up at night.  Is cussing ever OK?


I can tell you how my Momma answered that question.  The same way Ralphie’s Momma answered it in a “A Christmas Story.”  There was never an appropriate time or use of cuss words.  They were strictly forbidden.  End of discussion.

But thinking about it from a purely rational standpoint there’s a little more room for debate.  After all, they’re just words right?  Words with meanings and definitions.  It’s clearly wrong to use them a way that demeans or tears down others, but if used in right context are they any worse than any other word?  Or what if they’re used in a purely benign way?

For example, when we went to Russia our translator was trying to tell us to avoid stepping in the dog poop on the hill.  The only English word for poop he could come up with was the more colorful one.  So he told us to watch out for the shit.  Was he cussing in that moment?  Technically, yes.  Practically, no.  Did I cuss in writing that word?  Technically, yes.  Practically, no.

Ok, ok, I know I’ve got all the parents of teens anxious and praying their kids don’t read this blog.  No worries.  No one under the age of 18 reads anything longer than 140 characters anymore.  I’m not trying to stir up controversy.  I’m just asking a question that my sermon proposed but never answered.  Is there ever a proper context for cussing?

Here’s where things get tricky.  Technically, yes, there is a proper context for cuss words.  If a farmer uses another word for mule or the vet calls a female dog something other than a female dog they aren’t really cussing.  Now, if they use those words to describe another person that’s another story (no way around Ephesians 4:29 here).  But what about all the times we curse without any intention of cursing someone?  Is that OK?

Well, even then the fact remains that many people see these words as crass or crude.  That alone moves it into the realm of “unwholesome talk” and Ephesians 4:29 is right back in play.  I don’t think that means every time you cuss you sin and I don’t think our salvation hangs in the balance.  However, I do think it’s best for Christians to clean up our language, especially when it comes to how we talk to others.  

The golden rule is exactly what Paul prescribed.  Speak in a way that is “helpful for building others up” so it “may benefit those who listen.”  Apply that advice to our language and the world will be a better place.

6 thoughts on “What’s in a Word?

  1. Right on. Our society has become lax with the technically “non curse words” too. I am just as bad as anyone of replacing a cuss word with another. The intent of the phrase is the same. If we looks at the intent of the word instead of the actual word itself, our list of cuss words will grow exponentially. An example: “shove it up your pie hole.” The intent is the same, socially it is more acceptable because it lacks the classically defined curse word.

  2. Russ, in my house we couldn’t use words like “gosh”, “golee” or “dog” (God spelled backwards), “goldar” or the like as I was told it was a euphamism for the name of God. I remember the first time I heard my Dad use the word “gosh” in anger, I was so amazed! 🙂 My phrase, when I was younger, was “damn it” when I did something wrong or stubbed my toe, etc., till I heard my 3 year old son saying it. I too have always wondered about the use of the words when not being directed at some one. But I keep going back to “no unwholesome talk”. Great thoughts. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: The Top 5 Posts of 2013 | Ramblings

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