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Speaking Out: Vulgar language misses the point

By  Bernadette Timson, Youth Speak News
  • February 19, 2020

It sometimes is interesting as to why God gave humans speech. I recently came across two YouTube videos from Ascension Presents, a Catholic apostolate, which tackles the issue of using obscenities, an area of improvement for myself. Like all of our gifts, we are called to use the virtue of modesty with this one as well. 

It turns out that there are five possible functions for swearing, according to cognitive psychologist/linguist Steven Pinker. First, abusive, done with the deliberate intention of offending, intimidating or causing harm emotionally or psychologically. Next, cathartic, done in response to pain or discomfort. 

Third, dysphemistic to show someone’s negative opinion about something or someone. Then, emphatic swearing used to indicate passion, exclamation or emphasis on something, especially if someone feels strongly about a subject. Finally, idiomatic is done to show informality in a conversation or relationship.

St. John Vianney said, “the man of impure speech is a person whose lips are but an opening and a supply pipe which hell uses to vomit its impurities upon the Earth.” 

Overall, the use of impure speech can be divided into two categories. The first involves turning what is inherently good or sacred and making it profane, for instance, sex or more commonly, the names of Our Lord or Our Blessed Mother. 

The second category involves the use of vulgar and obscene language. Obscene comes from the Greek word meaning “off scene.” It was intended that in theatrical performances, sexual, indecent and violent scenes would be implied and not seen. 

The use of vulgarities is more arbitrary to determine, as some words do not have an intrinsic meaning to them and can even vary between cultures. This calls us to reflect on what is sacred and holy in our personal lives. Two questions to then ask: Is it being used in public, where it could scandalize others, especially children? Is it against, around or making a reference to a sacred subject, like persons or sex? 

There are various places where we do encounter more of it than others, such as sports events, subways and customer service lines. Decades ago, when a particular look was given in society, it was a signal that something about your behaviour needed to be corrected, especially around women. That attitude is missing today and could use a comeback. 

I have often sworn deliberately, so this is as much of a lesson for me as anyone. I long ago had to pass the point of thinking that a silent glance or gentle warning will remind a person to be mindful of their language. Rather, I think this is a symptom of a deeper problem. We live in a world where we no longer know what is sacred and, at the very least, we lack a reverence for it. 

We can’t stop others from swearing; all we can do is control our own actions. In fact, telling others to not swear can be quite ineffective. But, just maybe, we can plant a seed in others by showing some reverence ourselves. 

Instead of using vulgar language, we can try to think of what we really mean and be more expressive with our words. That requires a lot of prayers and intention and, like all other virtues, can take a lifetime to master. Just remember though, a saint is merely a sinner who never gave up on what God asked of him or her. 

Here are a few reflection questions to ask if you’re still torn on the subject. Do I know the meaning of the words I use to swear? Is it actually expressing what I really mean? How often do I use them? What does it reveal about my heart? What kinds of words are in my lexicon that I could use instead? 

(Timson, 21, is finishing her Event Management studies at Humber College in Etobicoke, Ont.)

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