Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What Makes a "Bad Word" Bad?

By Mark Montgomery

Have you read that old western novel entitled the “Virginian?” Early in the story the Virginian is called a name. It is a name that often causes trouble. Instead, he smiles when he hears it. Why the smile? Because a friend had said the words, and was also smiling.

Later in the book the Virginian is called the exact same name. But this time, not by a friend. So the Virginian pulls out his Colt revolver, lays it on a table and says, “Smile when you say that.” Everyone knows that trouble is just a heartbeat away.

Same words. Different results. Somehow, bad words are not always easy to figure out.

When preachers from my home church said the words, “Unless you have been saved you might go to hell,” it did not have the same effect as when a stranger said, “Go to hell.”

Recently, while alone with my granddaughter, she started singing a song. When I asked about the song she became embarrassed. She said, “It is a song I really like, but it has a bad word in it.” Then after a period of silence she added, “But my daddy likes the song too.” Uh-oh.

She was honestly wrestling with the question, “What makes a bad word bad? “

Is the word OK if it is in a popular song? Is it OK if my daddy likes the song? Is it OK for me to sing it with my friends at school but not in front of my grandfather in his shop? The word in question has already been established as a word our family does not use.

This is a legitimate problem. She will eventually have to answer, “Should I listen to my parents when almost everyone else, from the Vice President on down, seems to think that profanity is just fine.”

She better get used to the internal debate. For it gets more complex.

Some words that were once common are now bad. Others don’t mean what they used to. Words that once were able to have some shock value are so common now as to be meaningless. Profanity is now considered “adult” language where it once was the childish refuge of the witless. What’s a little girl to do?

I once played on a collegiate intra-mural basketball team that was quite successful. The team voted to name themselves the “Black Jews plus One.” I was the only Caucasian on the team. The name could have been worse. One of the original suggestions had been “Black Jews plus Whitey.” After forty years of making decisions about words, I don’t think any of us would pick that name today, (or been allowed to keep it by the university!) Maybe we should have known better back then. But in 1969 it felt funny, irreverent and rebellious.

Incidentally, I told this story a few years ago and was soundly chastised by well meaning folks who said, “Black” should be “African-Americans.” Jews should not have been named, “Why are the Jews mentioned at all?” Etc. I could only reply, “It was funny at the time.” The debate over language never ended for me and will never end for my granddaughter. Or perhaps, for any of us.

I believe that this eternal, internal, infernal debate is actually a very good thing.

The New Testament letter from James warns us that, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”

He goes on to add,”…but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

These lines are a pretty good hint that the “word debate” never ended for James either. His tongue, which in later life praises God and invites folks to faith, is the same tongue that spoke out against Jesus and did not believe him. (John 7:3)

James’ advice for the rest of us about this tongue tussle is this, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” Now those are “good words.”

So that is what I will tell my granddaughter. We are Christians. We use words to love, praise, help, pray, teach and sing. If a word or words do not feel right, stop and think. If what we are about to say passes James’ test, we can be certain that no word, of any age or meaning, takes control and uses us.