Foul language has become the patois of modern times

  • October 6, 2006

Last week, I went to see director Neil Burger's seductively charming (and faintly sinister) new film The Illusionist. The story has to do with a young magician (excellent Edward Norton) in Vienna, circa 1900, who falls in love with a titled aristocrat (Jessica Biel), much to the annoyance of the lady's suitor, the Austrian crown prince (Rufus Sewell). This tale is intriguing and the photography is sumptuous — though that's not why I am bringing up the film now.

Rather, I mention it because, after deciding I liked the film a lot, I realized an odd thing about it: There had been not a single four-letter word nor any other profanity in the whole production. This must be some kind of record for Hollywood, which ordinarily seems to think the moviegoing public will only pay for something with non-stop verbal vulgarity, and usually every other kind of vulgarity as well.

I am not claiming to be a goody-goody when it comes to language. I occasionally let fly with a four-letter word for emphasis — as in the phrase "That was blankety-blank awful" — or as an expression of dismay or surprise ("Blank!"). There are times — or so it seems to me — when no other words in the English language will indicate adequately my disgust or outrage about something. I have heard some women of my baby-boomer generation maintain that using coarse language is a sign of liberation from too-strict, pre-feminist upbringings.

That said, I am sick of four-letter words, whether uttered by me or by anybody else. They have become, for all of us, what adults are always (with appropriate finger-wagging) telling children they are: substitutes for careful thought, instances of verbal laziness. More to the point, they are ugly and, much of the time, they are used as instruments of abuse — not merely on the playground, but in private communications in business and government and elsewhere.

They are also part and parcel of the popular and even the high culture of our time, but especially the mass media. In fact, I hear far fewer four-letter words in a day of normal conversation with friends and colleagues than I used to hear in 15 minutes from my teenaged daughter's rap music radio station. (She has since grown up and moved into her own apartment, so I don't know what she listens to now.) Then there is television, where only news shows and the mildest prime-time sitcoms are free of endless verbal vulgarity. And, of course, the movies. And the Internet.

The media can be used as a handy excuse for talking as we do. For Christians, however, blaming the Internet (or whatever) is not so easy. In our speech, as in other forms of behaviour, we are called to follow a different law from that of the world.

In advocating an everyday speech as free as possible from the violence and coarseness of four-letter words, I am not suggesting that we adopt a stance of prudishness toward language, or toward anything else. Nor am I talking about propriety, or piously cleaning up our talk to make a better impression on people, or an improvement of manners — though there's certainly something to be said for plain, honest politeness, especially in a time when it is in noticeably short supply.

Rather, what needs to be emphasized in our everyday language, as in the rest of everyday life, is the law of love. Our speech can be, and should be, part of an earthly culture of love, where charity governs our verbal relationships with each other as much — and as vigourously — as it informs our social ties and tensions. While there will always be conflicts and disappointments (and stubbed toes) in the earthly city, we believe they can be encountered, almost always, without the abuse communicated by mass culture's vocabulary of four-letter words. Dealing with each other and ourselves in a language of peace is a step toward creating a culture of peace — something the world needs, and that Christians are called to deliver, as a healing antidote to the hatred and violence that pervade the contemporary world.

(Mays is a Toronto freelance writer and author.)