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Taming the Tongue

Foul-mouthed language, all around us — we either use it ourselves or just try to ignore it. Bad move either way.  

I’m standing in line at the convenience store one evening waiting to pay, when I hear several youth getting rowdy near the magazine rack. “Hey what the %$#&!” one of them shouts.

I leave my place in line and tap the youth on the shoulder. When he turns to face me, I say quietly but firmly, “Hey, watch your mouth, please. Show some respect for the other people in here.”

“Sorry,” the teen mumbles at his shoes. His friends snicker while I rejoin the line.

“Thanks,” the woman at the counter says quietly.

An article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor titled “The Soiling of the American Mouth.” In it, columnist Jeffery Shaffer laments that American culture, “having fallen headfirst into the linguistic water closet, . . . may never be able to climb out.”

The slide into spoken slime is readily apparent. Even movies aimed at children are sprinkled with words that would once have gotten me a bar of soap as an after-dinner snack. What’s equally disconcerting is the prevalence of profanity among faculty and students on college campuses. Universities are supposed to be places that foster the freedom of self-expression, but such vulgarity makes a mockery of that freedom. Blame the media, blame the schools, blame whoever, but start by blaming the person you shave for blithely accepting it when others show a total lack of respect for those around them by displaying gutter mouths in public. I often find myself confronting people in public for cursing, especially when women and/or children are present. Usually, they will apologize, sometimes grudgingly.

I think that when people curse as a matter of everyday speech, it simply shows a lack of ability to form more creative ways to express themselves. The article points out that crude speech is often used to prove that one is not a “socially inept loser.” I’d make the opposite assertion, that people who must resort to rough language to state their position are just that.

Cursing has been around since the advent of spoken words. But while there may be some instances where it is forgivable, when it starts to become common in everyday speech, it begins to dilute the meaning and effectiveness of our language.

I had a college professor who seemed to be proud of his ability to swear like a sailor. When approached about it, he held that he was simply asserting his right to free speech, but many of his students, myself included, thought that his offensive language simply made him seem juvenile, and he certainly held much less credibility in our minds. Worse yet, since a college professor occupies a position of leadership, his lack of linguistic self-discipline had the harmful effect of portraying his speech as something to emulate. Many of his students had not yet sufficiently developed their own beliefs to keep from being influenced by his.

Simply having the freedom to do a thing doesn’t justify doing it. Being able to discipline oneself for the benefit of others is the very essence of maturity.

Free speech is an almost sacred right in this country, but freedom can only follow responsibility. It must be balanced with the duty to set a good example in public. One of the biggest problems with today’s society is that we have largely forgotten the concept of civic and social duty. We have rebelled against that responsibility and are forced to live in the pit that we’ve helped to dig as a result.

Step one in getting out of the pit is to stop digging yourself. Be more cognizant of the example that you set in public. A Christian should make every effort to allow Christ to be evident in all areas of his life, speech patterns included. We should strive to be an influence for what’s good, decent and proper. Secondly, stop accepting the profanity of others. If someone is talking that way in public and you see it, say something! (Find a tactful way to do it, “Hey, watch your mouth around the kids, please” seems to work very well.) They may not accept your criticism, and go right on cursing, but you will have done what you could by letting them know that their behavior is unacceptable.

There is actually an organization based in Lake Forest, Ill., called the Cuss Control Academy. Their website asserts, “Our reluctance to restrain our impulses and to make the effort to be polite is contributing to a coarser, less civil society.” They list 24 reasons why we should strive to control our tongues:

What’s Wrong With Swearing?

Swearing imposes a personal penalty.

  • It gives a bad impression.
  • It makes you unpleasant to be with.
  • It endangers your relationships.
  • It’s a tool for whiners and complainers.
  • It reduces respect people have for you.
  • It shows you don’t have control.
  • It’s a sign of a bad attitude.
  • It discloses a lack of character.
  • It’s immature.
  • It reflects ignorance.
  • It sets a bad example.

Swearing is bad for society.

  • It contributes to the decline of civility.
  • It represents the dumbing down of America.
  • It offends more people than you think.
  • It makes others uncomfortable.
  • It is disrespectful of others.
  • It turns discussions into arguments.
  • It can be a sign of hostility.
  • It can lead to violence.

Swearing corrupts the English language.

  • It’s abrasive, lazy language.
  • It doesn’t communicate clearly.
  • It neglects more meaningful words.
  • It lacks imagination.
  • It has lost its effectiveness.

The Bible also has much to say about how you choose your words:

To fear the LORD is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech (Proverbs 8:13).

Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. For whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it (1 Peter 3:9-11).

And of course:

The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell (James 3:6).

By taming your tongue, you might not be able to change the whole world, but you can work to better your little corner of it. It is your duty to do so.

We all have a civic duty to help maintain a polite society, just as we have a duty to help maintain a clean one. Sometimes that goes further than simply not littering yourself; it extends to making it clear to someone you see littering that their behavior is unacceptable. If at that point they thumb their nose at you and walk away, fine, you have done your part — almost. The only thing you have left to do is pick up the other person’s trash yourself, setting an example for them. It’s the same with swearing. You lead by example, but don’t forget to look behind and uphold the expectation that others follow your lead as well.

You cannot force someone to follow your lead, but you can make it clear that you expect him to. And you never know what results you’ll get; very often, people will live up to your expectations of them.

Copyright 2002 Chuck Holton. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Chuck Holton

Chuck Holton lives in Maryland on a small farm where he raises, well, kids, mostly. He also works as a stockbroker.


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