“Offend Not in Word”


“To swear is neither brave, polite, nor wise,” said Alexander Pope, and George Washington declared, “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”

My father was a farmer and put in long hard days of labor, much of it with animals. If any earthly trial I know of can drive a man to profanity, it is working with animals, and there are many men on whom it has had exactly that effect. My father wasn’t one of them. I’ll never forget a lesson he taught me one day while he was milking a cow that was sick with milk fever. Father had cracked his ribs not long before, and they were excruciatingly painful, but as if that weren’t enough, the cow in her sickness suddenly collapsed and fell right on top of him. It would have been a funny sight, him lying there in the spilled milk with a cow on top of him, if it hadn’t been for his white-faced agony as he struggled to rise. Although he was sick with pain, he didn’t call the cow any bad names. He got out from under her and onto his feet with difficulty and then helped the cow up. Then he ran his hand gently along her side and said, “You poor dear, I’m sorry you’re so sick.”

That may sound absurd to anyone accustomed to salving all wounds with violent words, but it seemed to me an expression of reason, kindness, and self-control far better than the string of oaths he could have spit out at a poor, dumb animal. I really don’t believe his ribs would have felt any better had he sworn, nor would he have felt any better about the experience. I don’t believe it anymore when someone tells me there are times when a person can’t help swearing.

I am grateful for my father’s good example, and we should always remember that our own example will have its effect on the lives (and vocabularies) of others. I once visited a friend who had two boys about four and five years old. They were playing at repairing machinery, and one of them was astraddle a grain auger. He had some wrenches and was playing like he was turning the bolts, and as he turned he was swearing a blue streak. He was hammering with the wrench and calling the bolts all kinds of profane names, and his little brother was doing the same. Where had they learned that? From watching their father and older brother repair the machinery, of course!

It is true that a swear word can add some artificial emphasis to a sentence. It is equally true, however, that the skillful use of language can produce the same emphasis, and that the more swear words are used the less emphatic they become.

I had that demonstrated to me while welding in a shipyard one winter. One day one of the crew came up to me and with the most friendly smile started to call me all kinds of bad names. I quietly said to him, “Bent, you just don’t call me those names.” He was hurt. He said, “Dan, let me show you something. Come with me.” So I followed him across the deck of the aircraft carrier and over on the other side to a catwalk where another member of the crew was welding. He had raised his hood and was watching us approach when Bent started calling him every name he had called me. The other fellow just grinned and called him back the same names with a few innovations and improvements. Then Bent turned to me and said, “See, I didn’t mean any harm by it.” And he didn’t! He had managed to almost entirely divorce sound from sense in his speech.

It is not our place to judge the speech of others or tell them what words they can and can’t use, although our example can be a powerful tool in helping them overcome their bad habits. On some rare occasions, however, we may be moved by the Spirit to let someone know his language is unacceptable.

I faced such a moment while in the Navy. We were in boot camp with a company of men who constantly bragged in the foulest language about the evil things they had done. One day a friend and I were sitting on our bunks when the door suddenly burst open and in came one of the roughest sailors. He started to call our Savior dirty, derogatory names. My friend looked at me and said, “Dan, we’re not going to take that, are we?” I thought about it for a minute, and finally said, “I guess not.” So I stepped out in front of the man as he came down through the rows of beds, and I told him that I loved the Savior and that he couldn’t say those things about him. Now it was his turn to think it over for a minute, but in the end he apologized. I’d like to think, for his sake, that it wasn’t just because I happened to be the camp boxing champion.

A physical confrontation, however, is seldom the right way to handle the problem. I’m not sure it was even in that case. Through love and understanding and prayer we can find the right way to help those people we feel impressed to help.

There are several categories of swear words that are objectionable for many different reasons.

One kind of swearing consists of taking the Lord’s name in vain. This is sometimes called profanity, and the Lord has clearly condemned it. To Moses he said, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Ex. 20:7.) To Joseph Smith he said, “Wherefore, let all men beware how they take my name in their lips.” (D&C 63:61.) President Spencer W. Kimball has warned, “Though the death penalty is not now exacted as anciently, blaspheming, like adultery and murder, is still as serious as formerly, even though it is common among us and partially accepted in our world.” (“Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain,” address delivered over the CBS Radio Network “Church of the Air,” March 29, 1953.)

There are words we commonly call swear words, however, that do not involve the improper use of the Lord’s name. Some of these are obscene terms whose connotations and uses are reasons enough for sincere Christians to avoid using them. Others are the active ingredients of angry and abusive epithets.

We should remember that the Lord cautioned, “But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” (Matt. 5:22.) Surely the same can be said for words and expressions that are used in our own language and culture to demean and insult other human beings. This includes, of course, many derogatory terms other than swear words.

There are no doubt some unacceptable words that don’t fit any of these categories, words that are offensive only because society happens to consider them so. We should keep in mind that many good people (right or wrong) are offended by these terms and consider them evidence of a lack of Christian dignity or even a lack of morality. Even many people who swear themselves feel that a really religious person wouldn’t. This seems like a good area in which to apply the advice of Paul: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (1 Thes. 5:22.)

It is also possible that our bad example in what seems to us a small transgression or even (perhaps rightly in some cases) no transgression at all may encourage others with a different viewpoint to relax their standards in more serious things. Paul once told the Corinthians, “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no meat while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.” (1 Cor. 8:13.) As Latter-day Saints we should always try to live above reproach.

You may have discovered that there are times of disappointment and discouragement in life when in the heat of the moment only a loud exclamation from the unabridged dictionary seems to adequately express your emotions. Those who have come to rely on profanity as an outlet for every frustration do find it hard to get along without. It becomes a sort of addiction. It offers no real relief, however, and no real solution to the problem that evoked it.

There still remains one big question: How do you break the habit? It’s not easy. Your “computer” automatically issues you a cuss word or two for every sentence you run through it, perhaps more in cases of stress; after all, that’s the way you’ve programmed it. Now you’ll have to consciously plan what you say for a while—no more automatic pilot till you’ve established new habits. Run your conversation through mentally before you vocalize it, and censor out any unacceptable tidbits that pop up in spite of your best mental efforts—a sort of delayed tape system similar to the ones the TV networks use.

Elder Boyd K. Packer once gave another helpful suggestion. “Make an agreement with someone not in your family but someone who works closest to you. Offer to pay him $1.00 or $2.00, even $5.00, each time he hears you swear. For less than $50.00 you can break the habit.” (Conference Report, Oct. 1967, p. 128.)

In our language as in all other things we should apply the admonition in the 13th Article of Faith [A of F 1:13]: “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

The Apostle James said, “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able to bridle the whole body.

“But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.

“Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

“Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.” (James 3:2, 8–10.)

[illustration] Illustrated by James Christensen