Profanity, Obscenity, and Swearing

No Swearing

I had concern for my holy name, which the people of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. Ezekiel 36:21 (NIV)

As I have led our local community theatre for the past decade, the subject of language has been an ever present topic of conversation. In fact, the subject of language on stage has always been a topic in productions. Playwrights often lace their characters’ lines with language that producers know will offend large portions of a local audience. If you eliminated all of the potential plays and musicals which contain language or content someone in your audience might find unsuitable, you’ll eliminate about 99% of classic works. Shakespeare himself is full of off-color language and bawdy humor, but most audiences today don’t catch it.

It is technically illegal to change a playwrights copyrighted lines without permission, but local productions regularly choose to tone down a play’s language for their patrons. Still, you can’t please all the people all of the time. Even after choosing to tone down a script’s language I still have to regularly write letters of apology to audience members with hyper sensitive ears. It goes with the territory.

Because of my experiences with language and the stage, I have studied the nature of “dirty” language over the years and found some fascinating lessons to be learned. Most people do not understand the difference between profanity and obscenity, but there is a key difference which adds a layer of meaning to our message from Ezekiel in today’s chapter.

Profanity can be thought of as taking something meaningful, and emptying it of its meaning for a more base use. The most common example would be the name of Jesus. Followers of Jesus believe there is spiritual power associated with the name, so when others use it as angry exclamation it profanes the name, emptying it of its spiritual meaning to be used as a common expletive.

Obscenity, on the other hand, can be thought of as dirty language. Think of George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on television (Well, you couldn’t say them on television back when he did the routine in the days of my childhood). Bodily functions, fluids, excretions and sexual references used for exclamation, descriptive embellishment or other effect.

The concept of swearing is actually a version of profanity. In the middle ages, people lived together crammed in one room and both the excretory and sexual body functions were not done as privately as they are today. Obscenities were not a social taboo because everyday social reality was itself a dirty existence. In those days, however, to take an oath (to swear) was thought of as having significant spiritual power. If you wanted to really let fly with profanity in those days, you’d make an oath and swear “by his (e.g. Jesus’) blood” or “by his (e.g. Jesus’) wounds.”

Shakespeare used contractions that were considered swearing (an oath), but not really. “Zwounds” or “Zounds” was a contraction of the profane oath “By his wounds.” In the same way we contract and alter words to soften the social blow (i.e. “Fucking” becomes “Fricking,” “God damn” becomes “Gosh darn,” “Jesus” is contracted down to “Jeez” or transformed to “Jeez Louise,” “Jesus Christ” is transformed into the doppleganger “Jesus H. Christ” which we all know is a completely different person ;-).

In today’s chapter, God takes exception with his people’s profaning His name. The word picture is of  them emptying a precious and priceless word of its meaning, pouring it out on the ground and dirtying it up.

Today, I’m thinking about my own words and the choices I make in every day conversation. I am admittedly guilty of letting colorful words fly from time to time. Today I am reminded that I need to be careful with the words I wield.

5 thoughts on “Profanity, Obscenity, and Swearing”

  1. I agree with you and you pointed out some good thoughts. I wrote a blog along the lines of the math of profanity- written and spoken and what a waste of time it is. Counting the seconds and split seconds together it takes to spell or speak those words it add up to at the end of 70 years you have spent 2 years doing just that: curse yourself. I post it to people, who write profanity in their sentences, hoping to make them revise their lingo.

  2. Good article Tom. The definitions help. I’m far from perfect but I desire to be. I can’t understand where and how Christians cussing has become chic. Of course there are different definitions through time of what is obscene and what is not. Different cultures have different morreys. It seems in our (Christian) desire to be “free” and “authentic” we feel the need to express ourselves with words that are really unnecessary as there are alternative nouns and verbs to communicate with. “Salty” and “colorful” descriptors are a side step to excuse communication that more often originates from pride and rebellion. I know there are examples in the Bible of course language and these are touted as reasons for us all to engage. However my understanding of the overall theme of the Gospel is redemption, love, and resulting holiness. In my mind and for me and my house I’ll consider obscenity, profanity, and swearing a result of my poor character and lack of holiness. I’m no longer under condemnation but should I go on sinning? No!

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