Learning to Swear

I can still remember the taste of Lever 2000 soap on my tongue. Soft at first, almost creamy. Then turning into an awful aftertaste of bitterness that wouldn’t go away even after multiple rinsings. I was probably five or six, sent to the bathroom to nibble on the end of a bar of soap after saying a bad word I don’t now recall.

I remember grocery shopping with my dad around that time. In the soap aisle, among the dozens of boxes and brands, he picked out a box of Lever 2000.
“Ah, this is good to wash out mouths with!” he said, laughing.

For years I thought that was the main motivation behind choosing a brand of soap: to wash out words like “butt”, “stupid”, and “idiot”.

Now that I’m past that foolishness, I’m glad I got this kind of discipline as a child, because it taught me to watch what I say. It taught me that words carry power, that having a vocabulary is like carrying a full syringe of medicine so powerful that too much of it can kill someone.

Then I got older, and found myself initially shocked at all the colorful words that I found acquaintances, coworkers, and TV show characters using. My vocabularic syringe was weak medicine, but I figured that was how it should be. A nice “darn” was good enough to express any amount of frustration, after all. No one needs to swear.

And besides, God commands wholesome talk. The tongue is the rudder of a ship, a match to a flame (James 3). My speech, and by extension my writing, must be “above reproach”.

And the principle behind this is a good one, I think. It makes you aware of what kind of medicine you dish out. I was satisfied to live my life a proper, sweet-mouthed lady, and the characters of my writing were content to be quirky, sweet-mouthed caricatures.

Except for one.

Most writers know that once you start creating a character, he or she eventually becomes real enough to finish the job of creating him- or herself. And this one character, she just started swearing. I tried to tame her, but at the same time I couldn’t really blame her. She was angry, she was confused, full of sorrow and spunk. My weak syringe of medicine wasn’t good enough for her.

Soon I realized it wasn’t good enough for myself.

Because here’s the thing: art imitates life. And as a writer of faith, my art is to imitate life so I can then reveal the pattern of redemption. Whether the world of my writing is real or imaginary, some shred of reality has to be there for the story to work. If I do not accurately imitate life, then of what value is my redemption? It’s weak, stale, and worthless.

The proof of this is reality itself. The world is corrupt. It once was not, and it will soon be returned to its original state again. As a Christian, I have to own up to the corruption so I can point to the redemption. Without corruption, redemption is weak, stale, and worthless. If all I ever offer is a syringe of honeyed medicine, I am not being the doctor to the sick that Jesus is.

As Christians, our words ought to be restorative. And in this broken, cursed world, sometimes the most restorative thing to one person is what would kill another. Conversely, you can say terrible things without ever breathing a swear word. You can eschew all curses and euphemisms and derivatives thereof and still not have a rein on your tongue.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about language, it’s that it is fluid. Words only have meaning because of the meanings we, in a particular time and place, have given them. At the end of the day, your character is not about what arbitrary collection of letters you have chosen to use or not use. It is about knowing when to use them to build up and restore God’s beloved creation.

So in light of these musings, I’m learning how to swear. It’s a delicate art. You have to really know people and situations in order to say what’s most appropriate. It’s made me more thoughtful about my vocabulary. I now say “damn it” every once in a while. And a few other things. But I won’t go into all that now; we’ll start you off at a low dose.

Words are medicine; use the strongest ones for the greatest ailments.


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