Once upon a time, I was a sweet respectful little girl who never said bad words. So meticulous was I that even "stupid" counted among the unsaid. Once in a moment of family hilarity I accidentally called my dad "dummy" and was instantly struck with such bottomless contrition that I fled to my room sobbing. Although a few mild epithets slipped out with age, essentially I could count on both hands all the times I'd sworn for the first 17 years of my life.

Then something sort of dramatic happened. Instead of having a senior year of high school, I graduated early to accommodate my parents' move to the Republic of Slovakia in all its post-communist glory. The year entailed many experiences that contributed to my general maturation into adulthood, among them learning a frequently vowel-less language, consuming vast quantities of pork, falling down a mountain meant to be skied, and mastering second-world public transit. The strain and stimulation conspired to cause a radical departure from my pre-Slovakia personality: I began to swear like, well, a sailor.

Cultural adjustment unleashed a lifetime's worth of pent-up cussing. I just couldn't help it. They say that victims of aphasia--the stroke-induced syndrome that destroys speech function--can still swear; the words are manifestations of a deeper consciousness than the mere cognitive-lingual function. A similar sort of thing must have happened to me. For every 15 new Slovak words I mastered, an English curse was sure to slip out sooner or later. (Needless to say, I found some willing infidels among my Slovak acquaintances to provide me with a well-stocked armory in that language, too.)

College offered little relief from my disorder. Remember the language in the spontaneously scripted Blair Witch Project? It's fairly representative. No amount of sophisticated term papers on the deconstructionist literary analysis of Jane Eyre or Irenaeus's doctrine of recapitulation can change the fact that there is exactly one adjective of choice on college campuses, the one that starts with f and has four letters. (No, not "fine.") I proved no challenge to the status quo until about the spring of my sophomore year when my conscience--or at least my sense of propriety--began to afflict me.

So I undertook a weighty work: to excise the aforementioned adjective from my spoken vocabulary as a Lenten sacrifice. Every time I violated my vow of non-cussing, I added 25 cents to my Easter offering. (A not insignificant amount for the poor student I was, not to mention a potential drain on valuable laundry quarters.) In all the word slipped out 18 times--that is, slightly less than every 2 days during the 40-day period. It was a stunning improvement over my previous daily record. The discipline took root and I am pleased to say that I never use that word at all anymore ... unless I really mean it.

The exercise provoked some reflection on the function of bad words in language and society. It didn't escape me that the worst words now have sexual connotations, whether referring to the act like my cuss word of choice or to body parts. In fact calling those particular words "swear" or "curse" words is technically inaccurate. Swearing and cursing conjure up religious ideas, but the bad words with religious themes--hell and damn, for instance--have lost all the shocking force that their sexual counterparts still have. Case in point: I spelled those two words out, but I wouldn't write the others. Those words referring to body functions and products seem to fall somewhere in the middle.

Does this mean that we as a people take the prospect of eternal perdition to be less horrifying than, say, a pile of excrement or an unpleasant sexual encounter? Maybe the latter simply seems more real, the former a little too fanciful. I take some comfort in the fact that the G-D word still packs a punch that the D part alone fails to do, which perhaps makes an appropriately theocentric point. Saying the Savior's two names together in a tone of cursing causes deep offense, too, so the name apparently still retains its power.

It's a curious thing, though, that swear words exist at all: There are words in existence that are not supposed to be said! Maybe need these words to be taboo, even if we like to break the taboo, and often. When the usual words start to lose their scandalous power, we are swift to provide new ones. What single word could provoke more public outrage than a certain racial epithet that starts with an n--a word so volatile that even a semantically unrelated word with the great misfortune of being homonymous to the bad word could cause a man to lose his job? It is understood in polite society that this is a line not to be crossed. Denigration (oh, dear, please ignore the etymology of that one) of ethnic groups is even worse now than severe spiritual punishment and nasty physical things. Society needs those bad words because it needs to indicate that some things are just really bad. Curse words tell it the way it is: there are parts of human experience that are embarrassing, appalling, and best to be avoided even in conversation.

Now to me, a theologically inclined sort of person, that sounds like original sin and the persistence of evil and the corruption of the will and the "fallenness" of creation. And then it dawned on me: all the clergy I liked and respected most had a habit of, let us say, "seasoning" (not drowning) their conversation with words of this sort. (Ok, for clarification's sake, the ethnic ones were by and large avoided. The others, by and large, were not.) These individuals were not lacking in capacities for self-restraint; rather they were, like the words themselves, telling it like it is.

Though I've got myself under control now, I seem to have imbibed this particular clerical ethic. A friend remarked to me the other day some minutes into an intense lunch conversation, "You know how I can tell you're a high Lutheran? You crossed yourself before you ate, and you haven't stopped swearing since." He's on to me... damnit!

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