'It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justifcation is there for a word which is simply the opposite of another word? A word contains the opposite in itself. Take "good" for instance. If you had a word like "good", wehat need is there for a word like "bad"? "Ungood" will do just as well - better, because it's an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of "good", what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like "excellent" and "splendid" and all the rest of them? "Plusgood" covers the meaning; or "doubleplusgood" if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words - in reality, only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that? ...Don't you see the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?'
1984, Chapter 5
Language is a subjective thing. What counts as a swear word? The memory of my adolescent self is still apologizing for saying 'damn' so much here in the early days. I had no idea it was that offensive in North America until a few years ago.
What counts as a curse word seems to be constantly changing, dependent on time and place. And for Christians there are a range of different views on what kind of language we should be using, supported by a hundred different arguments and counterarguments (many drawn from the bible) to back up whatever position we've taken:
- "Don't take God's name in vain, people!"
- "I only use swear words when things are really bad - when they really express something!"
- "The bible says 'let no filthy talk come from your mouth'. And swear words are filthy. So logically..."
- "Some people might be offended by those words, but that's not what I mean when I say them."
- "They're just words - they have no power."
- "You're quoting the bible out of context."
- "Those words are demeaning to women, we shouldn't be using them."
- "I am free in Christ to express myself."
- "I use my freedom in Christ to sacrifice my self expression for the sake of others."
I've heard them all.
This is not what I'm writing about today.
A friend made a random offhand comment last year, something along the lines of:
"I hate it when people are constantly swearing. It's like they don't use their brains."
It made me stop and pause and for the first time I considered the consequences of chronic swearing on a societal level. It's actually something that happens. The kind of swearing which manifests itself in entire communities speaking a form of language where every second word is a crass expletive. Where all the adjectives are replaced by "shit" and all the superlatives involve a "fucking". It's the language you catch among some sub cultural groups, among teenagers who think they already know everything, among people who didn't engage well with the education system. You must have heard it before. The thing that alarms me about it is its terrifying similarity to Orwell's Newspeak, made famous in his work "1984".
In Orwell's dystopian future, all creativity and individuality is squashed out of society through the paring back of language to its bare bones. Colourful adjectives, metaphor, poetry - it's gone, replaced by bland descriptors that don't mean anything at all. Good. Plusgood. Doubleplusgood. In a world with reduced language, humans are reduced too. There is no outlet for expression or creativity, no means to imagine new concepts or challenge the status quo.
Doesn't it sound familiar? Is there any difference between "plusgood" and "shit"? Things might not be as tragic as Orwell's dystopian future, but the stifling of creativity looks like a plausible future for some communities. Curse words are whittling away language, replacing the words that could otherwise be harnessed to think new thoughts.
As a Christian I look at that situation and see alarm bells ringing straight away. Not just because of the filthy language spewing from our mouths (James 3 anyone?). There is even more at stake when an individual swears as part of a community. On a corporate level swear words can function as agents of chaos, depleting our linguistic resources and stifling creativity, stifling our ability to fulfill our human potential. Stifling our ability to create like the God who's image we were made in.
What can we do? Maybe trade some words or phrases. Next time you want to call something "shit", maybe try "the worst thing in the long history of the cosmos". Or if you want to pump up your adjective use a little, how about instead of using "fucking" try "extremely". Or "terrifyingly". Or anything else?
Or you can try reclaiming some original meaning. Maybe just save those words for when you actually want to talk about smelly excrement, or the violent sexual penetration of another person. You know, for when those topics come up in your conversation.
Language is a beautiful thing!
Heed Orwell's warning - cultivate it, don't cut it down with lazy swear words!