I’m not talking about “by my troth” style swearing, just to be clear. The other night, as I was reading to my two eldest children, my seven-year-old daughter was troubled when one of the heroes in the Chronicles of Narnia “swore by the Lion”. After all, isn’t swearing what only naughty children do?
Or Naughtie radio presenters. For the next day saw the ill-fated morn of James Naughtie’s BBC radio gaffe in which a spoonerised “Jeremy Hunt the Culture Secretary” meant Naughtie introduced said politician in less auspicious terms.
A brief explanation to my daughter cleared up the Narnian misunderstanding over the difference between rude words and strong promises. But her question started me thinking about words, and the difference between “good” and “bad” words generally.
Then the BBC incident. Then, later that day, a frustrated outburst of some colourful language from a good friend (who, because I want him to remain a good friend, shall remain nameless). It did him good really. And later still that selfsame day, an odd episode in which I quoted, with schoolboy glee, the King James’ rendition of Isaiah 36:12 to my boss (and immediately felt rather foolish).
Put them all together: they all got me thinking about swearing.
The BBC was inundated with emails following the Naughtie word; some saw the funny side, but as many were seriously upset, not least over those (including Naughtie himself) who had clearly found it funny. Words have power; especially, it would seem, swearwords.
The word which Naughtie inadvertently uttered live on radio is widely considered one of the very worst words in the English language. But it was not always so. Enter Chaucer, pillar of English literature. “Prively he caughte her by the queynte” he writes jollily of the secret amorous act of one young character in The Canterbury Tales. (Does it take an expert in Middle English to see the last word in the quotation is the direct forebear of the one so untowardly mentioned on the radio?)
Certainly words change their meanings and their impact over time, including in some cases “going bad”. One YouTube commentator felt the shock over Naughtie’s slip was nothing more than silly Victorian prudishness about “words related to bodily functions like sex and going to the toilet”.
If that’s all there is to it, I thought, then why not throw off these Victorian vestiges and reclaim the wonderful power of all those four letter words? After all, we all know there are certain times – of rage or of outrage – when only those words quite seem to cut the mustard. What’s more, as someone who spends much of my working life searching for the right words, indeed the most powerful and arresting words, should I not joyfully reclaim them? Lace my next Sunday sermon with a few effs? Pepper a tweet with some blinds?
Perhaps not. I recall the Apostle’s stern words. Christians are to rid themselves of “filthy language from their lips” (and presumably their pens, not to mention tweets).
But what exactly did Paul mean? After all, what was “filthy” for BBC listeners this week didn’t seem to worry Chaucer overmuch. What was the “filthy language” outlawed by Paul?
Surely it’s not simply about putting words in two lists, “clean” and “dirty”, “good” and “bad”? This seems arbitrary at best. One man’s swearword is another man’s poetry. No, surely the important thing is that our language speaks – beyond the words we choose – of something worth saying. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “Let your speech always be seasoned with salt”. It’s the flavour of the message our words bring that is important.
Could it be that sometimes even those verbal villains, swearwords, have their place?
I once heard that Tony Campolo, that consummate Christian communicator, when facing a large crowd at some evangelical conference or other, had opened with the question, “What the f--- is going on?”
Shocked silence. Campolo went on to describe the plight of South American street children before rounding on his audience and saying, “And look at you lot! You’re more concerned that I, a preacher, used a four-letter word then you are about this awful injustice.”
Point made, and I think made very well. Three cheers for the eff-word. Camplo’s message was, in fact, well-seasoned. But I wonder how many lesser mortals, hearing that story, have copied his shock tactics only to end up conveying little more than a smutty or upsetting cheap stunt?
The key, it seems to me, is the heart and spirit behind the words. It may, just very occasionally be absolutely right, like Campolo did, to use a “bad word” to drive home a good point or express something with sufficient strength. I’ve even heard it suggested that the Apostle Paul did something similar in the Bible, though his strong language there is usually made more polite in translation.
But such calculated strong language remains the exception that proves the rule. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control in this area as in any other. Christians should reflect the Life within them. This seems to be Paul’s main concern. Loose, crude, or derogatory speech can’t achieve this.
I find it easy to forgive poor Jim Naughtie his spoonerism and even his desperate attempts to stifle the giggles that followed all through the 8 o’clock news headlines. But as for those of us who hope to speak for Christ – we should remember the trenchant words of another Apostle: “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God.”
That’s quite a responsibility. No short cuts. No cheap stunts. And no eff-words – unless I’m absolutely sure.