Appropriate Language

March 15, 2004 | 39 comments
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Between teaching Seminary and raising five children, I have plenty of opportunities to consider the topic of appropriate language. The other day, for example, one teenager referred to another as a “brown noser.” I asked, “Do you have any idea what that means?” Blank stare. Another piped up, “Yeah, it means that he sucks.” Arggh!

With the recent selection of teams for the NCAA tournament, there are plenty of opportunities for fans to express their opinions. Often, these expressions make reference to sex: so-and-so “got hosed,” “got the shaft,” or “was screwed.” (Hmm … not a positive portrayal of sex in the whole bunch.) Earlier this morning, I was reporting on last week’s home teaching adventures to my EQ President, and I wanted to explain that one of my families had cancelled an appointment. I almost wrote that I was “stiffed,” but then refrained. Is this a sexual reference? Yes, I am becoming paranoid.

While I try to avoid making inadvertant sexual references, the language police sometimes go too far. A few years ago, I used the expression “more bang for the buck” in class. Afterwards, two women approached me and said that they thought the expression was inappropriate. They claimed that it had reference to prostitution. Ok, I did a little research, and they were wrong, but I never use that expression without thinking of the incident.

So I am curious if others think about such things. Are there common expressions that you find offensive? Or do you think that people who worry about such things are hopeless prudes who should find something better to do with their time?

Then there is the subject of curse words, swear words, cuss words, etc. The F-word seems clearly out of bounds, as are any derivatives. References to sexual organs and other body parts often associated with sex are also taboo, unless used in a clinical sense in the context of a discussion about chastity. The S-word is usually off limits, except with some farmer-types, but even modern farmers tend to use “manure.” References to female dogs usually don’t go over well, but are less shocking than some of the other words. In my experience, the two words that serve to divide “liberal” and “orthodox” Mormons are “damn” and “hell.” If you want to signal to others that you are on the edge, use them. But even here, walk gently. It’s probably best not to use them over the pulpit, unless you are giving a talk on the plan of salvation.

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39 Responses to Appropriate Language

  1. Jeremy on March 15, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    When I was growing up in southern Utah in the 80s, a group of my friends took to referring to distant places as “B.F. Egypt.” They were totally incredulous when I pointed out to them what the “B.F.” stood for.

  2. Renee on March 15, 2004 at 2:39 pm

    Interesting topic. We (the collective) seem to use sex in a negative way alot when insulting people. “Go blank yourself”, “Blank off”, “Blank you”, etc. Then there’s more description ones that indicate to the recipient they should do various acts to you or that you did to their mother. It’s all very odd when you think about it.

    I remember when I was a kid, it was awful to say to someone “Sit on it” or “Go suck and egg”. Where did we come up with these things?

    The point of whether or not they should be offensive is debatable. Surely if we say, “Blank you” we really have no intention of engaging in the act with them.

    I find it offensive that kids (and some adults) refer to themselves as pimps. But apparently, they don’t mean it in the “I have 3 girls on the corner” way. So should I be offended if their intent is not the original meaning?

    Did any of that make sense? Oy, Mondays.

  3. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    I find it amusing and annoying at the same time that so many members think nothing of the flippant use of “cr*p” and “p*ss”. I have actually heard these words for the pulpit. Trying to gently poke fun and register a subtle complaint by replying, “What did you say about excreta?” just doesn’t go over well. I am trying to teach my two little girls, ages 5 and 3, to say, “Oh my goodness” or “Golly”, etc., a task made difficult when adult members use more colorful expressions (though still not as bad as the outside world) in their presence. Here’s a suggestion, if you’re ever board and want a good laugh: go an entire day taking everything you hear from others completely literally! You’ll raise a few eyebrows, and laugh your head off!

  4. Greg Call on March 15, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    To me, use of “damn” and “hell” by a Mormon indicates not that she is “on the edge,” but that she is trying too hard to be perceived as “on the edge.” To wit: check out this quote in the Trib story about the gay missionary photography row:

    “On the other hand, student Carrie Eardley loves the show. More than that, ‘I love that they’re not censoring it. I was damn pleased this morning. It made my day.’”

    “Damn pleased”??? Nobody but a uncomfortable-in-her-skin Mormon (or ex-Mormon) would swear like that. (Apologies, Carrie, if you are lurking here.)

  5. Gordon Smith on March 15, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    Gary, You reminded me of a whole category that I forgot to mention in the original post: the soundalikes. We are all familiar with “fetch” and “flip,” which are probably unique to Mormondom. There are many others that have wider circulation: “shoot” and “geez” and “gosh,” to name a few. Then there are the truly odd (and truly old): “Son of a gun!” “Jiminy cricket!” Or “Doggonit!” And where does “crud” fit in to all of this?

  6. cooper on March 15, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    LOL!LOL!LOL! falls on floor laughing….

    This is exactly what I needed for a a Monday morning. My foreman just got served and has to appear in court tomorrow. What a day.

    No seriously though. It is something that we tend to get on kids about, but seem to look the other way when it’s adults.
    I loved the article in the Sugar Beet on “froop” the new F word. (I’m having a hard time being serious this morning)

    It is also a sign of the dumbing down of America. There are two America’s out there for certain.

  7. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Gordon,

    I had forgotten about those too! Maybe all the good people here at T&S can start a movement in the Church, which could eventually sweep the globe, whereby we substitute truly good, uplifting words for all these expletives! How about “righteousness!!” or “more holiness give me!” instead of “da** it!”, and “sh*t!”. How about “repentest thou!” instead of “f*** you!” Think it’ll catch on?

  8. Steve Evans on March 15, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    Greg,

    You are dead on with that “trying too hard” comment. Mormons that are truly “edgy” have a much more natural way of cursing about them.

    Gary,

    The problem with expletives is that they will ALWAYS be an expression of anger/frustration/exasperation, etc. Substituting good, uplifting words will do no good, because the intent and context will remain the same. That’s my problem with mormons who try to use ‘replacement’ words in the first place. “Flip” and their ilk just make people look stupid AND uncouth.

    I’m not defending use of profane language (though, yes, I have a potty mouth). I guess it would be more effective if mormons controlled their speech a little more rather than substituting in one more dorky worldly phrase for another.

  9. Kaimi on March 15, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    I must admit, I find it very annoying when people substitute dashes and asterisks for cuss words. The whole d*** or h— stuff. To me, that’s worse than swearing. It invites the reader to substitute in the real language in her mind, and makes her an active participant in the profanity.(It annoys me enough that, over at the Sons of Mosiah blog, when making a comment on a similar topic, I just used the words in question for my discussion. I’ll refrain from that here — I’m not exactlty sure why, but it probably has to do with being extra-cautious since over here I’m an “official” voice.)

  10. Jim F. on March 15, 2004 at 3:28 pm

    So, what’s wrong with “damn” and “hell” as expletives? Surely “damn you” is offensive and ought to be thought worse than some of the others mentioned, but I don’t see what makes these two offensive or why their use marks one as someone trying to be perceived as on the edge. Of course accepted usage makes them offensive: if we all think a word is offensive, then it is. I don’t question that. I wonder what to make of that usage.

  11. Gordon Smith on March 15, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    A potty mouth?! Oh, I am laughing so hard that I can barely type! I haven’t heard that expression for a long time.

    Some missionaries in my mission decided that foreign swear words were the way to go. Truly silly to hear an American swearing in German. I’m with Steve. Let’s just get rid of the need for the words by controlling the way we speak.

  12. Karen on March 15, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    Have to agree with Steve on the dorky and uncouth point, although at times I’ve caught myself saying “cuss words! cuss words!” when dropping something on my foot etc. I guess I find it more honest to actually admit I’d really like to swear, but am holding myself back at great difficulty. Other times I don’t hold back, and feel the incumbant guilt that comes with my upbringing. :o)

    I think Gordon’s original point brings up a good question about the changing nature of language. If the sexual connotation is neither intended by the speaker, nor apprehended by the listener, is it even sexual anymore? I had honestly never thought about brown noser in the sense I’m assuming you perceived it, but had always assumed it was the euphemism to the more colorful alternative. But, now I thank you for the mental image! :o) See Renees comment about the term “pimp”

  13. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Kaimi,

    Now, come on…how is substituting an * in a profane word or expression somehow worse than just writing the word out, and how does it force the reader to be a participant anymore than actually reading the word itself? I did this simply because I don’t like to just write out these words, so I, and I’m sure many others, consider this the literary mode of TV/radio’s “beep”.

    Jim F., not to play the role of your mother or other trusted authority figure, but if you can’t see the problem with da*n and h*ll (oops! there I go again, Kaimi!), and why they are so offensive, just imagine them coming out of President Hinckly’s mouth (that’s President Hinckley, not J. Golden Kimball, our favorite G.A. who’s very existence and popularity destroys the seriousness of posts like these…)

  14. Steve Evans on March 15, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Gary,

    Jim may ably defend his own post, but clearly “damn” and “hell” are already entirely proper words to use when discussing gospel topics.

    As expletives? I don’t see a problem with them, they’re non-sexual, non-blasphemous and relatively harmless.

    If you really want to have harmless expletives, may I suggest you take a page from Robert Louis Stevenson and use pirate curses: “Avast!” “By Thunder!”

    See the random pirate curse generator:
    http://popculture.incompetech.com/toys/pirate.html

  15. Gordon Smith on March 15, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    Gary, I thought Jim was not questioning whether these words would be viewed as offensive by many people, but rather asking why these words became offensive in the first place. Many words are offensive because they are common in the sense of displaying a lack of refinement. Vulgar. Uncouth. But nothing in the words “damn” or “hell” would place them in that category. In response to Jim, I suspect that these words are more properly classified as “profane” than vulgar.

    By the way, does the third commandment (thou shalt not use the Lord’s name in vain) really have anything to do with swearing?

  16. Steve Evans on March 15, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    Gordon,

    Swearing is what the 3rd commandment is all about, IMHO – i.e., no false oaths.

    But using the Lord’s name as an expletive is something different, I think; it’s general blasphemy and disrespect to God. As such it’s a breach of a more serious commandment.

  17. Gordon Smith on March 15, 2004 at 4:04 pm

    Steve, That seems right. Thanks for responding to what I meant, rather than what I wrote. My impression, too, is that the 3rd commandment has more to do with false oaths than expletives, but I often hear people chastising their children for “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

  18. brayden on March 15, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    Growing up in Idaho (in cattle and farmer country) I have a different take on profanity and Mormons. Most Mormons I knew in Idaho used words that would have been considered swearing in some parts of Utah, but in Idaho members weren’t swearing to be “on the edge” or to signal some level of liberalness. In fact, most of these swearers made Orrin Hatch look like a pinko-Commie.

    A member of the stake presidency while I was growing up was known to emit a “hell” or “damn” occasionally from the pulpit. During his farewell talk (released after six years of service), he made sure to use “hell” several times. Two GAs were present. One was visibly nervous and the other chuckled along with the rest of the congregation.

    He (the stake president counselor) used to say that working with cattle gave him a bad mouth. I’m not a rancher, but I will sometimes use that justification when I’m working on the computer and doing statistical models. Stata drives me to curse.

  19. Ben on March 15, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Someone raised the question of how things become “swear words.” It’s interesting… In Quebecois French (at least according to my Quebecois MTC companion) words associated with the sacred are the worst. “Sacred tabernacle” is extremely crude. Unless you’re actually talkign about a sacred tabernacle:) Is perhaps this the same process with damn and hell? Religious words losing their religious connotation?

    In england, “bloody” is apparently extremely crass (though common.)

    Do any of the law guys have any comments on the FCC ruling that Bono could indeed say the f-bomb (my wife’s terminology) on TV, since he was using it as an adjective?

  20. Bob Caswell on March 15, 2004 at 4:27 pm

    It’s interesting to see where this conversation is going… I, for one, am very interested in the origin of profanity. We just discussed this a week ago over at bobandlogan.com under the title “The History of Profanity”. I’d love anyone’s input:

    http://www.bobandlogan.com/archives/000056.html

  21. Levi on March 15, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    I had a high school English teacher that took part of a lesson to explain the reason why so many four-letter words are considered offensive beyond their literal meanings. They’re all good Anglo-Saxon words for the things which they stand for, but during French rule of England it wasn’t proper to use Anglo-Saxon in polite company. You had to use French or Latin to converse, or else you were considered to have ‘vulgar’ (from the Latin for ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’) language.

    We’re far enough removed from that that it’s not particularly relevant to how we choose our words today, but it’s interesting to wonder what we’d use for expletives if the Anglo-Saxons hadn’t been conquered and had their language subjugated.

  22. Steve Evans on March 15, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    Bob, you shameless self-promoter, you’re always trying to steal thunder from T&S.

    http://rameumptom.blogspot.com

  23. Logan on March 15, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    Shame’s overrated.

    (This post gives ticks me up to 100 comments. Woo hoo!)

  24. Bob Caswell on March 15, 2004 at 5:07 pm

    Actually, I’ve already referred to myself as “shameless” so many times… I like it when other people do it for me, especially those who are part of the “shameless” club.

    But, just for fun, let’s analyze this for a minute. Why do we say shameless as opposed to shameful?

  25. Kaimi on March 15, 2004 at 5:16 pm

    Bob,

    My understanding is that it refers to the idea that if one had any sense of shame, they would be ashamed to act in a particular way. I.e., acting in some ways is proof that the actor has no sense of shame — shameless.

  26. Aaron Brown on March 15, 2004 at 5:26 pm

    You’re probably all familiar with the term “Bad Ass”? I understand it as a positive adjective (or noun), meaning “cool” and “edgy” in a rebellious sort of way. Well, a friend of a roommate of mine in Utah would often come over and use this phrase. Except, since he didn’t want to swear, he would always say “Bad butt!” To this day that still remains the LAMEST thing I’ve ever heard.

    I’ve always been intrigued by the word “bitch.” Like “damn” and “hell,” it is not considered offensive when used in certain contexts, but is when used as an expletive. Compare this with words like “f**k” and “s**t” which have no modern usages that are considered inoffensive, even though they both have synonyms which, while crude, are not considered “cuss words.” Bitch seems unique to me, though, in that it can have a particular meaning in noun, verb and adjective (“bitchy”) forms for which there really is no good synonym. Thus, I find the term really useful in certain non-expletive contexts, and I don’t know that that’s true for any other cuss words.

    Finally, is there some unwritten rule that says the asterisk (*) should take the place of the vowel (as opposed to a consonant) when writing four-letter words? And is a word rendered relatively more innocuous by the use of multiple asterisks (**) rather than one? Obviously, it doesn’t make sense to type *uck or *hit, but does it make a difference whether I say f*** vs. f**k vs. f*ck? In other words, did that last sentence become gradually more offensive as it progressed?

    This is fascinating stuff. :)

    Aaron B

  27. Kim Siever on March 15, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    You guys remind me of my first mission president. I had to curb my newly acquired yet excessive use of “dude” because apparantly a dude is a pimple on a horse rump.

  28. Gary Cooper on March 15, 2004 at 5:36 pm

    Bob Caswell,

    Perhaps we say “shameless”, instead of “shameful”, out of envy (because we wish we could do and says those types of things and feel as good as you do…), ha ha.

    Steve Evans,

    You are right, I only meant that when using damn and hell in a proper context they are okay, but when using da*n and h*ll in a non proper context they are not. I rue the day when honorable words like “conservative” and “freedom” get this treatment, but hopefully in the Millenium hideous words like w*lfare st*te and social*sm will be done with. Just kidding, on what has now become a very funny subject. I loved the random pirate curse generator, by the way, Thanks!

  29. Gordon Smith on March 15, 2004 at 5:37 pm

    I knew Aaron would have at least one great story! That is hilarious, Aaron. Of course, the rest of your post just drove Kaimi nuts.

  30. Aaron Brown on March 15, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Kim,

    Is this really true? I have my doubts. I grew up hearing that it was a “zit on an elephant’s butt.” I actually tried to confirm this as a teenager, but could not. I’ve always assumed this was a silly falsehood designed to trick kids into dropping a phrase that the adults couldn’t stand.

    Aaron B

  31. Levi on March 15, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    I’m pretty sure that particular meaning of ‘dude’ is a corruption of the meaning that refers to fancy city folk taking vacations at ranches, a la ‘dude ranch’. I.e., to the true cowboy, a dude at the ranch is nothing but a pimple on the horse’s behind.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dude for the true etymology.

  32. Levi on March 15, 2004 at 6:00 pm

    Also, an interesting timeline of ‘dude’ usage: http://www.grateful-dudes.net/dude_meaning.htm

  33. lyle on March 15, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    I know its just me; but seems oft that Isaiah’s prophesy is best fulfilled in word usage/changes:

    1. gay
    2. pimp (or mami or dadi in spanish)
    3. phat (pretty hot & tempting)
    4. bitch (bright, intelligent, x, y, z)
    5. etc. is there a pattern? or is this just normal language shift and there is no conspiracy after all…ratz…

    oh…what about BoM cursing? i.e. my fav is ‘shiz’ and the perenial mish fav…’fetch’.

  34. Kim Siever on March 15, 2004 at 8:56 pm

    I have no idea if it’s true or not, but that was the reasoning our president used. We also couldn’t refer to children as “kids” and could say “that sucks” or “that bites”.

    Apparently, the president before him ran the mission like a military unit. Glad I came in when I did.

  35. cooper on March 15, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    The censors on tv are getting pretty creative now too. I am not sure if it because of the recent Howard Stern brewhaha or not: yesterday we were watching Die hard with a Vengence on FX. There was a spot where Bruce Willis says the old “Yippee KaiYay M***— F***– (just for Kaimi) and instead of saying the real words they inserted “Yippee Kai Yay Melon Farmer”. It was quite amusing.

  36. Jim F. on March 18, 2004 at 3:13 pm

    I’ve come back to this so late that I’m probably too late. Nevertheless:

    Gary Cooper: Though I’ve not been a member long enough to have heard J. Golden Kimball preach (heck, I’ve not even been alive long enough), I have heard General Authorities use “damn” and “hell.” Of course, I don’t expect to hear them do so over the pulpit, and I don’t think they use them frequently.

    Gordon: You’re right. I’m curious as to how “damn” and “hell” came to be swear words, not about whether I am justified in using them when I do. The idea that swear words are often the result of profaning sacred terms makes sense to me, though it makes more sense in the case of “bloody,” a reference to Christ’s blood, or “holy tabernacle” a reference to his body. Perhaps which terms get profaned is more or less arbitrary (after all, the same expression in another language is often not a swear word), but that those two words have become profane expletives intriques me at least partly because they are unlike other profanities.

    My wild guess, not backed up even by a glance at the dictionary, much less by any real research, is that they are profane because they began as expressions that were indeed profane, such as “Damn you.” That curse of another person got shortened to just “damn,” which in turn became a simple expletive rather than a curse, but it retained its original taboo.

    I have to say that when I use those words (never over the pulpit!), I do so without the sense that they are curses of someone else. For me, they are must expletives. (I’m not trying to justify my use, just describe it.)

  37. Clark Goble on March 18, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    I thought that “bloody” referred to Mary, Queen of Scots, and not Jesus.

    As with many swear words, the theological terms seem the ones considered most innocuous while terms that don’t fit the theological sense of swearing are considered the worst. For instance no one complains about people saying “oh my God” or the like. They now even allow “Jesus Christ” as a swear word on TV. Yet the two *big* words starting with an F and an S have basically no relation to theology but are considered by everyone the worst words. (Although as others have pointed out synonyms are somehow OK)

    Personally I’d far prefer someone to drop the F-bomb rather than use the name of the Lord in vain. I must confess I’ve done it a few times in my life in moments of stress. But I can thankfully say I’ve never used the Lord’s name in vain. (I have used hell and damn, but more as flowery language often ironically tied in with scriptures – especially the old Book of Mormon standard of “thrust down to hell.”)

    What’s funny are words that are offensive in different groups. For instance bloody isn’t a swear word in America and I suspect we think the British are funny for thinking it so. Back home a** wasn’t a swear word but b***h was. Here in Utah it is reversed.

  38. ardeana vance on April 23, 2004 at 7:27 pm

    please send to mt e mail

  39. Mike on April 24, 2004 at 5:24 am

    I also thought bloody was referencing Mary Queen of Scotts as well.
    I always assumed that damn and hell when used in a swearing context are obscene because they indeed are blasphemous. Basically the same thing Jim said. Because if you say “damn it” you are consigning something to hell, judging, looking down on God’s creations, etc.

    In Australia people don’t really consider damn and hell swearing (although other things that aren’t swearing here are much more looked down on) and so a lot of members said damn and hell so a lot of missionaries picked it up, I tried not to- one time near the end of my mission in zone conference our mission president said that it doesn’t matter if it isn’t swearing here, missionaries shouldn’t say those words unless actually talking about the proper gospel aplication.

    I am ocassionaly bad about replacement swear words. Are there times when a phrase of frustration is OK? I know the missionaries who served in the phillipines would say something to the effect of “pas te lon” and I asked what it meant- they said they are pretty sure there isn’t a translation it is just an expression of frustration. When I got home from my mission I started using bugger as a replacement swear word fairly often, although I don’t much any more.
    It is interesting because I didn’t use it on my mission- it does have a worse connotation in Australia and even worse in England.