ESSAY
How to Use Bad Words
POSTED
October 29, 2019

One day, the author Samuel Clemens cut himself shaving. He was an inveterate foul-mouth and on this occasion recited the entirety of his iniquitous vocabulary. When he was finished, his wife, hoping to shock him, repeated every word he said. Clemens responded, "You have the words, dear, but you don't know the tune."

By all accounts, including his own, Clemens, better known to us as Mark Twain, held his vulgarity in high regards. “Profanity,” he said, “Is more necessary to me than is immunity from colds,” and “Profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

He recognized that society did not share his affection, nor that his favored language would persist into eternity. “Let us swear while we may, for in Heaven it will not be allowed.” And even, “If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.” But during the pilgrimage of this life, we ought to be able to swear or curse according to Clemens. “The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way.”

This is Samuel Clemens advice on how to use bad words: in a nice and benevolent and affectionate way. For us, however, this is not enough. We need to know what he means by swearing. Perusing his extensive remarks on the topic of foul language, there seems to be no division between swearing, profanity, and cursing. So let us lay out a framework to understand and consider the difference between these seemingly synonymous terms of cussing, vulgarity, profanity, blasphemy, obscenity, cursing, coarse jesting, crudeness, swearing, filthy talk, dirty words, expletives, malediction, and imprecation.

I have found it helpful to think of a cross.[1] I call it the Cross of Strong Language:

‘Vulgar’ means ‘Common,’ as in ‘widely used’ and ‘not aristocratic.’ The Scriptures, when translated into the common tongue, were called The Vulgate. The use of the vulgar is in common or low settings. In the same way that greasy coveralls are for the barn and car garage and not for funerals, vulgar language is for use in the rough and tumble times and not for weddings. What is vulgar is a weed. A weed is a plant out of place. There is a place for a dandelion, but if it is in your vegetable garden it is a weed. The sin of vulgarity, is when the common is exalted high, which is why vulgarity is at the top of our cross.

Beneath Vulgarity is Profanity. To profane means to take something sacred and treat it as secular. ‘Pro fanum’ is Latin for ‘before the temple’ and the sin of profanity is when something High is brought Low, sullied. Blasphemy fits under the sin of Profanity.

These profane terms are properly used within their sacred contexts. Cursing, meaning to deliver a curse, a malediction or imprecation, should not be done of one’s own power. “Bless and do not curse,” counselled St. Paul in regarding to our enemies (Rom. 12:14). Vengeance is the Lord’s, after all. But it is nonetheless important to curse. To quote Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, “The pious hatred of the Puritans against curses by now has made man impotent to bless. Nobody has the power to bless or be blessed who has lost the vigor to curse.”[2]

The apostle demonstrates the right use of malediction in I Corinthians 16:22. “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” The power to bind and loose is not granted to us individually, but to maintain the power to bless, so that we may bless our enemies, we must be vigorous and discriminate in our cursing.

Moving to the lateral bars of our cross, we see that just as the vertical bars indicate contrasting movements, so too do the lateral bars indicate opposing motions. Obscenity is placing within the public square evil things for the purpose of praising them. It is obscene to praise or depict positively murder and rape. Pornography is obscene for this reason. It is lauding the dehumanization of wantonness.

There is however a right and good exposure of sin in the public square. Sin ought to be marked out in explicit language. The prophetic descriptions of Israel’s idolatry, which is bracing to even the most coarse of men, is not obscenity, because it is not for the purpose of praise that it is exposed. Sin gets no protection, no hiding place, but is brought out into the light. G. K. Chesterton has said, “A book with no evil characters is an evil book” and we might add that a man who does not speak explicitly about evil is an evil man.

Conversely, Crudeness[3] is the exposure of purity in the public square for the purpose of mocking it. It is crude to joke[4] about the marital bed or piety. It is crude to pervert or sully that which God has called good. But in the same way that evil can and should be brought into the public square without being guilty of obscenity, so too must the glories of God be exposed. The Proverbs speak quite clearly of a married man’s devotion and delight in his wife’s breasts. The Song of Songs, clothed in poetry, speaks of sexual bliss.

A lack of right speech concerning these matters, gives place to obscenity. A failure to speak of the joys of motherhood (alongside its trials), the virtue of chastity, the beauty of femininity, will in the end lead to a derogation of children, a spurning of fidelity, and the pornification of sex.

When evil is not explicitly and publicly shamed and censured, good is shamefully exposed. When good is not poetically admired in public, evil is free to go cloaked abroad. Fornication becomes ‘making love,’ blasphemy becomes ‘freedom of speech,’ abomination becomes ‘expression.’ Even worse, the Song of Songs becomes ‘inappropriate,’ beauty is burka’d, art gets figleaf’d.

The Cross of Strong Language gives us a template for evaluating words and deeds. It equips us with questions to ask of speech or art. Is it devaluing the sacred? Then it is profanity. Is it mocking purity? Then it is crude. Is the ordinary in the wrong place? Then it is vulgar. Is it lauding evil? Then it is obscene.

So the outburst of Samuel Clemens is not cursing. It seems to me that it is not even vulgarity in that his comments were private. The sin of Samuel Clemens here is ingratitude.[5]  Primarily in the disregard of his wife’s scruples, but also in the ingratitude of his own life. One cannot blather filthily over nicks and cuts if one is at the same time overflowing with thanks for faces, convenient methods of shaving, and the glories of a well wrought mustache.

Bad speech, unlike bad money, does not drive out good. Bad speech, in fact, can only exist in the absence of good speech. To speak well begets good speech and tempers the tongue, and trains the youthful. Strong language, like strong drink, is potent, and therefore dangerous, and is accompanied with numerous warnings, but to eschew it entirely is to embrace weakness. Blunting the sword of your mouth benefits only the enemies of the kingdom, for death and life are in the power of the tongue,[6] but those who love it will eat its fruits.


Remy Wilkins teaches at Geneva Academy in Monroe, Louisiana and the author of two middle grade novels, Strays (Canon Press, 2017) and Hush-Hush (forthcoming).


[1] Why yes, I have, in fact, been reading Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. See below.

[2] Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future, p.24

[3] For more see my article On Crude Humor: https://theopolisinstitute.com/on-crude-humor/

[4] For more see my article on Wise Laughter: https://theopolisinstitute.com/wise-laughter/

[5] For more see my article On Foul Language: https://theopolisinstitute.com/on-foul-language/

[6] Proverbs 18:21

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.

CLOSE