“Bad” Words Make Me Barf

Imagine for a moment that ‘barf’, is the filthiness four letter word in the English language. Now imagine you’re a native person in the middle of a jungle somewhere, and you’ve never heard English. Say you’re out in the woods and for whatever reason you randomly shout, “BAAAAAAAARF!” at the top of your lungs.  Did you just say a bad word?

This position gets me in trouble with Christians (including my own wife) sometimes, but I don’t think bad words are actually bad. It seems to me that when talking about objective morality, as I continue to contend for, that we’re sometimes basing our moral decisions on half-truths. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor. He said all the law, and all the prophets, hang on these two commands. What these two commands guide us in, is intent, not specific actions.  They’re a benchmark for every action. I think language is a good example of how we get this wrong.

I think that usually Christians believe there is some set list of words to avoid using. I would disagree. Language is just composition of sounds.  The symbols and sounds that make up language in and of themselves are nothing. They’re just symbols and sounds. People ascribe meanings to them. The sounds and symbols themselves do not have any moral properties. If you sincerely curse me out in Russian I’ll have no idea what you just said, because those sounds mean nothing to me. What I’ll likely know if you do it in person though, is what your intention was. If you do it in writing I may not even know what your intention was. It will be as benign to me a the scribblings of a two year old. However, the generator of the language always knows what the intent was, even if the reciever dosn’t understand it.

You see, the objective morality with regards to language is not the language itself, it’s the intention of the language. I believe that I could say (remembering barf is a “bad” word), “have a barfing nice day!” and I’ve not violated any moral laws by the particular language I’ve used. The intent is much different from angrily saying, “barf you!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Christians should start using this sketchy list of words that we may or may not agree on in their everyday conversations. What I’m arguing for is that regardless of the words used, it is always the intent that should be considered. Real cursing is any language that carries the intent to harm somebody with your language, regardless of the particular sounds you make.

We’ve also got to be careful because there are a couple of other things to consider here. Just because I may not know certain words themselves to be bad, that doesn’t mean everybody is going to hold that same view. Even if I think I’m using some “bad” word with good intentions, it may still not be right to use it even though the word doesn’t carry the weight of any morality on its own. Paul found this same sort of debate happening over food in Romans 14 and encouraged his audience to stop passing judgement over disputable matters. He goes on to say that people should not put stumbling blocks in their brother’s way. This sounds a lot like love your neighbor! Perhaps I find a particular word to be benign, but the people around me don’t. Is it very loving to impose that language on them even if I mean no harm by it?

There is one other caveat to this discussion. Scripture does make it clear that the name of God is not to be used without good reason. This though, still clearly does not imply that use of the word itself is bad, since using God’s name in discussions of Him or with Him would not be morally wrong. In fact, this goes to prove the point.  Since the name of God can be used both rightly and wrongly, it is clear that the rightness or wrongness isn’t in the utterance of the word itself, but in the way it is used. It is the intent behind the use of God’s names that provides the foundation for the morality. Using the name of the One who created you flippantly, and against His direction, isn’t very loving to Him.

This then, is what makes “bad” words wrong. To really determine the objective moral sense of the words I’m about to use, I need to ask myself what the intention of my language is, and how will it affect my neighbors. Does it violate the two greatest commandments to love my Creator or love other people? I assert that no particular string of sounds is morally wrong in and of itself, but also that any string of sounds can potentially be morally wrong, depending how it is used!

Finally, if you disagree with me on this point, and hold to the idea that “bad” words are determined by each culture and what they understand, consider how easily I will pin moral relativism you!


9 thoughts on ““Bad” Words Make Me Barf

  1. Interesting thoughts, and I agree with your emphasis on our hearts and intentions. I’m glad you brought up Romans 14, and I’d also like to add a few other verses that come to mind:
    “…every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.” – Matthew 12:36
    This verse speaks of more than just intention, though I don’t think it’s something that can be clearly defined, rather our conscience (if it has been trained by scripture) should decide if what we’re saying is needful or glorifying to God.
    “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” – Ephesians 5:4
    While there are definitely some people who consider seemingly innocent words to be bad or inappropriate, we all know which words are “bad” and not fit for those in the kingdom of God, at least in our culture. Those who hold the office of an elder are to have a good reputation of even those who are not Christians (1 Timothy 3:7) and though that surely includes much more than the words they use, speech surely affects reputations and pure/innocent/in-corrupt talk is easily respected most everywhere.

    • Thanks for the thoughts! NASB of Matt 12.36 renders the word “idle” as “careless”. Carelessness is simply a lack of any intention. Certainly all our thoughts, words, and deeds should not be careless, because lack of intention can be just as harmful as choosing bad intention, but this still goes to intention (or lack thereof) being the defining moral property of language.

      I think I would disagree with you that we all know which words are “bad” and not fit for the kingdom of God, especially as we move through time and cultures. We only know which intentions (ie the “fruits” of Matt 12) are bad. If you do know what the list of “bad” words are, I’d like to see it published, and then an explanation as to why the sounds, in and of themselves, are “bad”, along with an explanation as to how we keep other words from becoming “bad”. Moreover, this must be accomplished without using any descriptions of the way we use or understand words. 😉

      • Haha, well I suppose you know I can’t produce any published explanations but there’s a general common sense that we have – we don’t use certain words in front of our grandmothers or potential employers or people we’re trying to impress because society in general has named them as “bad.” I suppose the closest publication I could come to is the way in which movies are rated; there are words that apparently should come with a warning according to the MPAA, regardless of intent. I understand your point about these words not being inherently “bad” because of the letters or sounds they are made of, but if society has deemed something inappropriate, and God has warned us of the power of our tongues and of corrupt talk and filthy language, I don’t see why we shouldn’t at least avoid words that even some non-Christians wouldn’t use. Also, what exactly would be the intent of using a known “bad” word in not a “bad” way? How does adding that extra, controversial emphasis please God or provide an example for or edify others? What about verses that tell us to season our speech with grace and salt?

    • Ahhh…so you’ve reached the dangerous part IMHO. I am not qualified, my grandmother is not qualified, and certainly the MPAA is not qualified to define morality. Even if I live my life by an MPAA PG rating, God will be sorely disappointed with me over the numerous sins I commit! “Common sense” is the foundation for morality that secular humanists pitch to me 🙂 I assure them morality is objective law built into the universe, similar to that of physics, mathematics, and logic

      I’m a moral objectivist. Remember what I’m lobbying for here. Not that we run out and use all sorts of “filthy” language, but that we think about what makes language filthy and avoid that instead, otherwise we may get it wrong. I contend that it is only how we use the language that makes it filthy. It cannot be the language itself. I ought to choose my language based on the outcome of its use, not simply by the sounds it makes. If certain sounds produce adverse affects in those around me, certainly we go back to Romans 14 and avoid it for that reason. I do, however, think this becomes a “disputable matter” so I’m not inclined to bother people about the words they use unless they’re using them unlovingly. I (nor anyone else) can produce a list to have them avoid anyway, since meaning of words standing alone is so subjective. Only context can make language right or wrong. Also, notice how this actually gives me leverage against users of real corrupt/filthy language (that which is unloving). Even the secular world will usually agree it is not okay to be unloving to people. If I can be thoughtful, and tell people *why* language is objectionable, rather than just referring them to a subjective list of “bad” language, they’re more apt to listen.

      Understand I never argued that we *should* use a known “bad” word in a not bad way. That was never my position. In fact, most often they would still be bad, but not because they’re “bad” words, but because they are used unlovingly in one way or another. I’ve only argued that words, in and of themselves, carry no moral weight. This is more an observation about objective morality, to point out that it is clear that we often use “good” words in much more morally objectionable ways than I often hear people using the “bad” words. We assign morality to the wrong thing. Symbols and sounds are morally neutral. Intent can be neutral too, but frequently is not.

      Perhaps my lead-in via the post prior to this one would make this more clear if you haven’t read it. It’s merely to say, I think we need to be more thoughtful about seeking out rightness, rather than just adopting cultural or sub-cultural norms.

      Finally, a question. What do you mean by grace and salt? Are some words more gracey or salty than others, or do you perhaps mean we should apply grace and salt to our speech by using speech with certain deliberate good intentions, thereby seasoning it with a particular moral rightness? See, intentional language works both ways! It is logically coherent, whereas subjective lists of “bad” words are not, and that’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the proper way to evaluate the true morality of language 🙂

      • Alright, alright, perhaps you’ve won me over with the ridiculously long reply. But I’ll have to chew on it some more.
        “Not that we run out and use all sorts of “filthy” language, but that we think about what makes language filthy and avoid that instead, otherwise we may get it wrong.” With the comfort that you won’t be out there spewing unceasing profanities, I think I can appreciate that we need to be more focused on the heart rather than becoming “whitewashed tombs” that only have the appearance of being righteous. And if you think of it this way, which is certainly the right way, then I think it may condemn even more of what we’ve been saying…outside of just the known “bad words” that everyone knows to avoid. Blargh, you’ve converted me.

    • LOL…sorry for the long winded reply. I hope my intention is simply to make people think critically about the glue that holds the particulars of their worldviews together, and not to “win”, but alas, my pride is probably at work in there too. You can rest easy that I won’t be (with malice aforethought anyway) unceasingly spewing anything that misrepresents me, misrepresents the God of the Bible, or is otherwise unloving to anyone within earshot. 🙂

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comments!

  2. First off I am not sure if I agree or disagree with your stance. The sounds that make up the word Barf in one lang may have a totally different meaning in another. However here is why I try not to use profain words:
    Eph_4:29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
    Eph_5:4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.
    Col_3:8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.

    I think the scriptures are clear that we should not swear, curse, make crude jokes, or have obscene talk. 4 letter words that we all know are obscene. They have meanings that do not build up, lead to thanksgiving.

    My 2 year old son mispronounces the word frog. Whenever he sees the frog he yells it out and repeats it over and over again. Is it swearing for him no. But if I were to tell my friends what word he is saying make a big joke out of it and repeat it myself I then I am venturing into unwholesome talk mentioned in Eph 4:29. But I should correct him so that he learns how frog is pronounced and so that he doesn’t offend someone in the future.

    There is always room for social errors that may occur, but correction is necessary within the body of Christ.
    Mike:” Oh Barf”
    Me “Hey did you know that in our society that is a really bad?”
    Mike “Oh no I am so sorry”
    Just as if I were to attend a church in another part of the world and gave a thumbs up sign but it really means barf you. I hope they would correct me so as not to offend, but to lift up.
    In a way you are right that society is determining what is right and wrong, but they determine the language and the meaning of words. Once a word has a certain offensive meaning we are compelled not to use that word or phrase because we are compelled to righteousness.

    • Travis, thanks for chiming in! I think you agree with me, you just haven’t realized it yet 🙂 You are assuming your own conclusion when you say you try not to use “profane” words (known as “begging the question”). What you have to do is explain why those words are profane. Further, if you want to hold to the position that the words themselves are profane, then you have to explain why they’re profane without using any descriptions of how the words are used. Good luck with that 😉

      Your example of the boy not sinning when he mispronounces the word frog only goes to my position. Whether or not your joking about it is to be considered “unwholesome” is, again, what is up for debate. You’ve seem to be presume the word is what makes it unwholesome, but I suspect that it is because it violates your own conscience or somebody else’s, and that is what you’re actually trying to avoid, not the word itself.

      When societal errors occur, they occur because people think you have an intention that you didn’t, and we don’t want people to mistake our good intentions for bad ones. “Meaning” is just another word for the intended communication. I would disagree that once a word has a certain offensive meaning we are compelled not to use it (unless we’re knowingly violating the command to love God our our neighbor). First, by doing so you imply that the meaning is necessarily and permanently tied to the word. That is obviously not the case at all, since the same sounds and spellings can, and do, have different meanings. Some *seem* worse than others because they’re primarily used with bad intentions, but I see no reason why these “bad” words couldn’t be reformed, or why other “good” words couldn’t become “bad”. Second, if I’m to be compelled not to use these words with bad meanings, you’ll need to provide me with the list of disallowed words, and then explain to me on who’s authority the list is based! Meanings of sounds change, individuals change, and cultures change. Basing our morality on any of those things is dangerous. Something that is objectively right or wrong cannot change, and must necessarily always be objectively right or wrong across time, space, and culture.

      Again, we avoid some words, not because of the words themselves, but because of the conscience of our audience or our own conscience. I think this is really what you’re talking about, and therfore you agree with me. Just admit it 🙂

      Finally, a question. Imagine me saying the sounds “dam it” to you. Did I just curse, or did I just give you an instruction to block a stream? Does the phonetic sound “dam it” go on the list of ones I am compelled to avoid, or not? No consider the phrase “you stupid tool!” Did I just call you a name, or did I just hit my thumb with a hammer and am expressing my displeasure of the inanimate object?

      Depends on the intention I have for my words, doesn’t it. 😛

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