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Topics: Ethical Living, May 2020 | Opinion

The case for swearing in public

We ought to be comfortable and secure enough in our own faith, religion, bodies and sexuality to accept a little irreverence


I cuss, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And while I have enough restraint to rein in my swearing around people I don’t know or people I know wouldn’t approve, I wish I didn’t have to.

I do curse in front of my children, however. I’ve taught them that swearing is an optional privilege of adulthood. They understand that, and they don’t mimic me. Watching my children come to a mature appreciation that there is a time and a place for swearing makes it all the more frustrating that so many adults continue to judge people who curse. I’m tired of being looked down on just for adding a little seasoning to my speech.

Why are these words so power­ful? The etymology of the word “profanity” itself gives us one clue. It originates from the Latin profanus, which means before or outside the temple, and many curse words continue to offend because they are an affront to the authority of organized religion. In French-speaking Canada, where Roman Catholicism once held sway, these religious roots are still apparent: curse words like Criss, tabernacle, calice and hostie are still common, especially among older generations.

In English Canada, our swear words are more likely to refer to sex or our bodies. These words no doubt gained power — and retain power — simply by capitalizing on prudishness.

No matter an expletive’s origin, we ought to be comfortable and secure enough in our own faith, religion, bodies and sexuality to accept a little irreverence, and use these “bad” words without outrage or offence. Doing so shows we have a mature relationship to the powerful forces shaping our lives like religion and sex.

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As a cusser, I’m not campaigning for everyone else to join me. I respect others’ choice to use the vocabulary they wish, but I also deserve that same respect myself.

Of course, some words gain their power by demeaning other people. I do not defend slurs against women, LGBTQ2 people, racial groups or other minorities, except when members of those groups take back ownership of a slur — and the power behind it.

Even modern science has shown what a benefit swearing can be. Studies have reported that cursing heightens pain tolerance, indicates honesty, signals a robust vocabulary, and induces endurance and strength during physical activity. So it’s no surprise I enjoy it so much.

My sometimes-salty vocabu­lary isn’t a reflection of poor character. I’m a good person. Not perfect — but I try to be decent, fair and understanding. Dropping F-bombs doesn’t diminish those attributes. So while I’m worried that ending the moralizing on swearing might have the unintended consequence of watering down the efficacy of a well-placed curse, I think it’s long overdue that society let that shit — I mean stuff — go.

This column first appeared in Broadview’s May 2020 issue with the title “Cursing up a storm.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Jackie Gillard is a writer from the Toronto area.


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  • says:

    When you swear (Yes I do too from time to time) it offends. Therefore it tells me you don't care about how I feel. That's what is wrong with profanity.

  • says:

    Beyond the juvenile assertion- I'll say what I want and you say what you want and than telling the reader lots of Christians swear so it must be all right, I did not hear an ethical argument. By insisting that you are not a bad person suggests to me you have no confidence in your position. It is a question for believers in God about reverence. What makes you think we can use irreverent language about God (who is the being of absolute goodness and love itself) and not expect anyone else to speak of you with irreverence? Would you like your name to be ridiculed and demeaned in public? If God is personal to you, you might be even more careful about the language you use and the context in which you speak of God in public.

  • says:

    Well said Jackie. I cuss too. And I like it. At my age, 70 plus, I've given up thinking about what other folks may think of me. Cussing for me is, if I'm recording a song and I get to the last verse and screw it up......the F-bomb works very well. Then I take a deep breath and start again. If people are offended by that or anything else about me, they can simply stay away. Being spiritual doesn't mean we follow someone else's rules. It means being in an ongoing and developoing relationship with the power that many of us call God. Too often our culture and religion has foisted ways of thinking and acting on us that, in later life and on reflection, are just silly. I probably have ten years of life left. I will live it my way and if people are offended.....(choose your own cuss word here).


    • says:

      "Being spiritual doesn't mean we follow someone else's rules."
      What about the "collective good"? Are you that selfish? What rules should we ignore?, murder, rape, theft?. do these offend you?

  • says:

    I will admit that I swear on occasion. But it is very limited and usually when I am extremely angry, and I regret doing so afterwards.. I do not like hearing people swear anymore than I like hearing myself swear. I have worked with many people and can certainly tolerate hearing swear words said, but I do have a negative, visceral response to it. I inwardly cringe when I hear the f bomb. I think many people do. And I think that those who defend swearing either don't care about that or are truly unaware that it does affect other people. I believe it is respectful to watch your language and not use swear words except within a social group where it is the total norm and accepted by everyone.