My relationship with curse words goes way back to family vacation road trips and Christmastime when the tree was being hoisted up in the living room. The common denominator of these events is my father.
I discovered the ABC’s of cursing every time a tractor-trailer cut in front of my family’s 1978 Oldsmobile or we missed an exit (again) on the way to the beach. I also learned the curse words that worked in combination with others when muffled profanities escaped the underside of the Christmas tree where my father screwed on the stand with great difficulty.
My father is a man of contradictions. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, but he can’t refuse a cheesy low budget sci-fi flick. He makes a mean salmon filet but isn’t above a cheese and mayo sandwich.
Growing up he told me, “Don’t use bad words.” To which I replied, “But I learned them from you.”
By the time I was 15, curse words no longer sounded awkward coming out of my mouth as they do with most adolescents who are still working on speaking convincing profanities. And like my father, I too became a contradiction — a skinny Catholic homeschooler with the mouth of a truck driver with road rage.
Twelve years later, my favorite curse word is still the same. And I know you’re probably thinking, “But aren’t you a writer? Aren’t curse words just a lack of creative vocabulary?” My reply is, how have you gotten this far in life without dropping your iPhone? Nine out of ten instances of cracked iPhone screens result in big ol’ PG-13 expletives.
For me, cursing is a combination of a knee jerk reaction to frustration, anger, shock, or sadness. Cussing is a verbal, emotional response to situations that proper English cannot express. There’s something so incredibly satisfying about using the strongest word possible to communicate your emotion. Just so you don’t think I’m a complete barbarian, I’m not making an argument for excessive profanities that make it difficult to even follow what someone is saying. When the ratio of curse word to regular word is 50/50, you just sound like you’re trying to prove something (see previous reference to adolescents).
If you’ve made it to this paragraph you’re probably wondering, “Why is Grotto running this pro-profanity article?” Or you’ve wisened up and you’re waiting for my come-to-Jesus moment where I realize cursing is actually evil. You wouldn’t be wrong, but you also wouldn’t necessarily be right. Let me explain.
One day on my way to the subway platform, I dropped my iPhone on the disgusting bubble-gum ridden concrete of Queens, New York. It all happened in slow motion: my earpods ripping from my ears as my phone missed my pocket and plummeted down to the street with a sickening smack. I cried out, “FUUUUUDGE” (except, not “fudge.”) Once the slow-mo ended, I scooped up my phone to observe the damage. It was also then that a little boy and his mom walked past me.
Sheepishly, I walked down the platform steps, kind of hating myself. Not because I dropped my phone, but because I screamed the f-bomb in front of a child (see, I have a conscience — I’m not a total monster.)
All of this scandalizing got me thinking about my foulmouthery. I’ve never felt 100 percent morally confident that there was a green light on cursing — especially with the possibility of scandalizing children. That’s never a good look.
In a better-safe-than-sorry approach, when I’m confessing sins, I always tack on, “Oh, and uh, I say bad words. Like, a lot.” A couple of times I’ve asked priests where f- and s-bombs are on the scale of sinfulness. Turns out, unless you are taking the Lord’s name in vain or denigrating someone uncharitably, cussing is not a sin. They are just words, after all — what matters is how they shape our thoughts and actions. If cussing doesn’t misuse God’s name or put others down with slander or malice, it’s just expressive. It might be uncouth or even offensive, but strictly speaking, it’s not sinful.
It was like I found a loophole, but I still didn’t feel great about cursing. I felt like I could still be better than that.
In one breath I tell people, “Trust in God!” and the next, “Where the eff is my phone!?” When we get down to the nitty-gritty of it, was Jesus walking around yelling expletives while curing those who were blind and lame? Probably not. (In fact, he explicitly told us to be careful with the words we speak.)
When I find myself using a lot of four-letter words, it usually correlates to where I’m at spiritually. When “fudges” and “shiitake mushrooms” become more frequent, I’ve noticed that it’s when I’m feeling distant from God and I haven’t been to confession in a while. A lack of intentionality with my speech signals to me that I’m going down a slippery slope — in these seasons, it’s also easier for me to slip into other verbal shortcomings like gossip, slander, callousness, and un-charitability. When I’m feeling close to God, using curse words always feels like a step backward.
As a writer, I survive on the fact that words have an impact. When curse words pour out of my mouth without me even realizing, I feel like I don’t have control over the very language I depend upon. I command words to illustrate, to transport, and express. For example, I can create an image of family vacations from my youth: picture me gripping a beach ball in the backseat between my two sisters, our bodies lurching left and right as the car darts in and out of traffic. But when my words escape without full consent, it’s like they have turned against me. I no longer control them, they control me.
Look, I’m not saying I’ll never utter an f-word again because I definitely will. Will I be proud of it? No. Will I try to keep my on-again, off-again relationship with curse words permanently on “off”? I hope so. But when I’m driving and some maniac with a car full of kids and beach balls cuts in front of me, I just hope God is okay with me ruining the word “fudge.”