A Modern Gentleman’s Guide to Swearing

By Daniel van Voorhis

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“He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.”

– Ralphie in A Christmas Story

As I continue to write my weekly column on manners, fashion, and culture here at The Jagged Word I will occasionally respond to questions from readers. Recently, I have been asked (as have others on this site) about the appropriateness of swearing. I am neither theologian nor pastor, and thus I will pass over the question of “Christian” swearing. I did, however, briefly look online to find what some folks said about Christians and swearing.  I read that saying, “when the yogurt hits the fan” is not appropriate because we all know what we really mean. I also read that a Christian shouldn’t use symbols or anything in the place of swear words—I always thought Q*bert was a stand up fellow. I appreciate well-meaning people trying to think through an issue and to try and throw Bible verses against it to see what sticks.

Can a Christian swear? I have no idea how to begin to answer that question. Does a Gentleman or fashionable woman curse? That’s more my domain. And perhaps this is a more fruitful conversation than going into the sometimes-tedious world of Bible proof texts and talk of the “weaker brother.” (These conversations don’t deserve contempt, I just can’t stomach them.)

The most slippery part in all of this is defining cursing, cussing, and/or profanity. As long as mankind has been around there have been taboos. Taboos often surround our relationships to one another. And when we are interacting with one another we tend to be speaking, fighting, or in the throws of passion. So words, and certain kinds of words, tend to be popular. But if curse words are related to taboos, which are by definition social, you would need to be socially aware of both society at large as well as your own specific context to decide whether or not you give a darn about being careful with your choice of words.

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Many sensibilities in America have come from the general Protestantism of the 19th century revivalism. This, in turn, has come to us from early English of Puritan/Cromwellian Blue Laws and thus the tradition of both Puritans and frontier revivalist preachers whose competition came largely from the saloon (a hotbed of cards, cursing, and whores women of the night).

Thus we have been handed the English, and subsequently Victorian sensibilities of finding taboos in every nook and cranny, but choosing our own distinctly American naughty words (no proper Victorian would ever use the term bloody or bugger, but few would take offense to these words in most American circles today).

The 19th century culture of walking very gently around possibly offensive words comes from a general notion of middle class behavior, wherein you could prove your social dexterity and upward mobility by knowing which words might offend. Yet, amongst the upper class and lower class there was not such an issue about one’s language (this is reminiscent of Adam Carolla’s rich man, poor man thesis).

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And so, welcome to middle class America. Chances are if you are reading this, you are one of us. Reading others opinions on manners, fashion, culture, theology etc…on the Internet is not usually associated with the poor or extremely well off (they are busy dealing with moneny/questionable leisure time – another rich man, poor man issue). So where does this leave us in the world of gentlemen and fashionable women with regards to “naughty words”? As you might know, my credo is one of knowing the rules, but breaking them in style. Some of these rules might be helpful to follow; others might be generally acceptable to break in the company of others.

  1. Do not swear loudly in public.
  2. Do not swear in anger in a public setting (this does not mean you may not exclaim such a word when injuring yourself).
  3. Do not swear to be vulgar (e.g. you might use the F word as exclamatory flair, but probably not as a substitute for fornication).
  4. Do not swear around young children.
  5. Know your audience, and use their social accepted code regarding language (such as you might not wear a suit and tie to a Kentucky Barbecue, not flip flops to the Baron de Chamois dinner party).
  6. Regardless of the words you are choosing to use, it is as offensive to slander and speak ill of someone using perfectly common English words as it is to use socially questionable language.
  7. Do not swear, even in acceptable situations, to such an extent that you cannot control yourself in appropriately taboo situations.
  8. Do not believe that those who use curse words are too ignorant to find other words, but do realize the lazy use of any kind of language opens you to appropriate criticism. Consider using your words (socially acceptable or not) with a kind o thoughtful flare.
  9. Avoid swearing around elders, magistrates, and in places of worship.

As with hats, firecrackers and raingear, usually you can use common sense and general social graces if in doubt.

LOUIE: Louis C.K. stars in LOUIE on FX.

In all of this, remember, just as the rule is that the belt must match the shoes is often and wisely broken, use common sense and understand the rules. Then break them with panache. Swear to make a point. Break a taboo to show the utter ridiculousness of the situation. Swear to show extreme anguish (and then do so with rather than at others). Or swear if you are Louis C.K., the comedy club has often proven a socially acceptable place to break taboos and play with or thoughtfully lampoon our use of language (think George Carlin in his famous 7 words you can’t say on TV routine).*

All the Best,

The Man About Town

Written while listening to: Paul Desmond, Summertime (1969)

*Both of the linked videos should only be watched with headphones or in appropriate place with neither children nor these guys. If you are offended by the title alone, stop watching. Please do not use the thread to criticize the language used in his video; I will assume you are highly offended unless you tell me otherwise.

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