Vulgarity and Plain Words in Scripture and Life, Part 1

A painting by Del Parson showing a group of people mocking and pointing their fingers at Lehi, who is prophesying while standing near a palm tree.

By Scott S. Mitchell

I have a long history of loving and hating vulgarity.  Like most devout Christians, I’ve been disgusted at how vulgarity now dominates everyday speech, and how our crass, dumbed-down society seems incapable of expressing anything without resorting to it.  And many movies, plays and TV shows with compelling stories and acting are made unwatchable by writers whose profanity-laced dialogues are harder to endure than a long swim in a cesspool.

But perhaps I’m as devout a hypocrite as I am a Christian, and because of that, I also enjoy some forms of vulgarity.  Some people “swear” so colorfully, and so deftly inject humor into situations where it’s needed, I can’t help but appreciate their skills and reward them with only partially-suppressed laughter.  Farmers, or those with farm backgrounds, seem to be particularly gifted cussers, and we seem to give them a pass.  Why?  Because they grew up surrounded by animals defecating and urinating all over the place, farm machinery breaking when needed the most, horses kicking and bucking, foxes and coyotes eating the chickens and rabbits, and little flecks of cow excrement falling off the cows’ udders and into the milk.  Farmers owe it to themselves to cuss, just to be able to deal with life if for no other reason.  And we owe them our empathy, and occasionally our chuckles, if not overt applause.  Besides, farmers normally don’t degrade women with their rough talk; they simply reflect with their words the inherent earthiness of farm life.

Many other people work in profanity-inducing occupations, and I won’t try to list them here.  Everyone is likely to think their job belongs on such a list, even if they’re an LDS general authority or the pastor of a congregation.  Again, as with farmers, sympathy and empathy may be in order for those who feel they need to cuss, even if at the same time we feel the need, as parents or friends, to encourage oral self-restraint.

I myself not only appreciate the timely, well-placed and humorously appropriate-under-the-circumstances vulgarity of others, I engage in it myself.  But this almost always happens when I’m alone, or think I’m alone, or think I’m too far away or in too noisy a place to be overheard.  And I don’t cuss at people; Jesus has forbidden that.  (See 3 Nephi 12:22 and Matthew 5:22.)  I cuss when I’m full of strong emotion and trying to blow off steam, or when I’m with a very close relative or friend who appreciates the propriety of such talk under the right circumstances.  Given my tolerance for cussing under certain circumstances, how sinful am I?  As we’ll see in Part 2 of this essay, it depends on the circumstances under which I cuss, and my intent in doing so.  According to the scriptures, the Lord and his prophets cuss, or do the equivalent of cussing, when their message is so important it requires vivid, memorably vulgar language, or what we consider swear words, to forcefully drive it home.

I’ll act as the guinea pig of this essay and allow the reader to judge my experiences with vulgarity to see if they comport with scriptural requirements (which we’ll examine in Part 2).  My first recollection of vulgarity came when my dad was being interviewed by two BYU athletic department officials for a job as a football coach at the school.  I was five years old, and my brother Mark was almost four, or barely four.  In front of the officials, Mark told a joke he’d heard from Dad about three moles.  The papa mole, mama mole and baby mole had each, in sequence, stuck their noses out of their hole on the first day of spring to smell the fresh air.  Both the papa and mama were long enough to get their noses high above the hole, and both pronounced the smell of the spring air fresh and clean.  But the short little baby mole couldn’t elevate his nose very high above the hole, and disgustedly he announced, “All I smell is molasses.”  Dad and Mom laughed nervously, of course; these were representatives of a church school, and one of the most prudish of church schools, at that.  But the two men loved the joke and laughed appreciatively.  If they inferred that Dad had to have been the source of Mark’s joke, they didn’t hold it against him, and he was eventually hired to coach BYU’s young men in addition to his own boys.

Four incidents stick out from my teenage years (though I won’t count among those incidents the daily disgusting profanity I heard from peers in junior and senior high school).  In junior high, I’d been taught by an acquaintance at Mutual one night how to verbally counter any insult I might be subjected to at school.  The quick comeback was every bit as funny as it was clever and vulgar, but because it was so vulgar I doubted I’d use it.  I had a clean reputation; I was known to not swear or indulge in vulgarity.  But the next day at school during recess I was at bat in a baseball game and the opposing shortstop was yelling insults at me.  I, prizing the reputational benefit of being clever and hilarious over the reputation for being wholesome, blurted out my vulgar retort and got a big, surprised laugh from both teammates and opponents, including the shortstop.  But then my good friend Tom Orr said, “I didn’t expect that out of you, Mitchell.”  How’d I feel?  Crappy.  Er, bad.

Maybe a year later, our family’s dog had had a huge litter of puppies and developed infections from all the nursing she was having to do with her many overworked breasts.  I thought her medical problems were something else, but my mother, who herself would go on to have her seventh child less than two months before she turned 42, and breast-fed all seven of us, knew better.  We argued about what troubled Queen, and I insisted I was right.  Finally Mom exploded that I didn’t “know a damn thing about this stuff” and should keep quiet.  I’d never heard Mom swear before, and I recoiled in horror at her temporary step into Hel. . .er, H-E-double toothpicks.  Ever-proper Mom had pulled a Rhett Butler on me, rebuking me as if I were Scarlett O’ Hara, and I was shocked.  SHOCKED, I tell you!

Not long after that, during the conversational free-for-all that normally prevailed at my family’s dinner table, one Sunday I commented on something (not the food) by saying I thought it was a “bunch of crap.”  Angrily my Dad ordered me into his bathroom where he forced me to bite off and chew on a huge piece of a bar of soap while he watched.  You see, in the last minute, a new arbitrary and capricious rule had been instituted in our house without prior notice–saying “crap” at the the dinner table was suddenly out of bounds.  (Whether crap-saying was permissible elsewhere in specially designated safe places wasn’t explained, and none of us dared ask out of fear of being regarded as smart alecks and punished for that, too.)  This was the height of hypocrisy on Dad’s part, because all of us in the family had heard him mutter one particular swear word “under his breath” many times.  It happened only when Dad was stressed out and on edge, but that was often.  His favorite word was a synonym for “crap”, but carried a far worse reputation and was considered profanity by even coarse people.  Sheesh!  (Oops; I almost said it.)  I can only imagine what would have happened to me if I’d ever uttered Dad’s favorite vulgarity within earshot of him or anyone perfidious enough to tattle on me.  I probably would have had to run away from home and stay out of sight for a week or so for him to cool down.

My dad was the longtime bishop of some of you reading the foregoing paragraph, and you’re likely surprised at what I’ve just disclosed.  But I defend my disclosure thusly:  Dad was a great man overall, and the trifle I’ve just disclosed won’t discredit him in any way in my mind or yours.  Besides, I enjoy telling this story because it’s so fun to embrace prior victimhood and briefly relive my role as wrongly-persecuted martyr.  For a brief while that day, Rosa Parks had nothing on me.  I should have called up some investigative reporter with the San Jose Mercury-News and breathlessly told my heartrending story while cameras flashed away at me holding the two-thirds of a bar of soap with my teeth marks in it.  “Parental Speech Codes Sometimes Carried to Extremes, Experts Say” the feature article might have read.

But seriously, I hope you’re getting the slowly-emerging point of this part of the essay, which is that the whole business of determining which scatological reference or other form of “swearing” is cussing and which one is mild and permissible expression is arbitrary, illogical, ever-evolving and ultimately, in God’s grand scheme of things, too trivial to be condemned in the scriptures.  In fact, as I’ve already said, some of the most picturesque vulgarity is found in the scriptures, uttered by other great men and the Lord himself.  (As far as I can tell from the scriptures, women don’t use vulgarity, or at least when they do, they’re never quoted.  It seems unfair, both to them and to us men.)

My last oral misadventure as a teenager was my most shameful, and it was easily worse than what I just described my dad having done.  One night when I was a high school junior we were playing a home football game at Cabrillo College.  I had thrown a long pass to a streaking teammate, hit him in stride right in the bread basket, and he’d dropped the pass.  My team was weak and cra. . .well, let’s just say we were weak, and didn’t score often.  We couldn’t afford to drop touchdown passes on the too few occasions when we got open.  I, wishing to highlight what a great pass I’d thrown and remind everyone how long I’d suffered the indignities of playing for such an underachieving team (5-24 in the games I played in), ceremoniously walked to the sidelines shaking my head and loudly muttered Dad’s aforementioned preferred synonym for excrement.  The next day in Sunday school, Kim Yeakel, a senior at my high school, told my whole Sunday school class that when I swore during the game, her nonmember girlfriend whom she was fellowshipping, and who was sitting next to her halfway up in the stands during the game, turned to her and said, “I thought you said Scott Mitchell never swears!”  And how did I feel?  Just like the word I’d loudly muttered.

Looking back, I actually think Kim Yeakel treated me charitably.  Having stabbed me with her dagger, she could have turned it and fully disemboweled me (pun only semi-intended) by announcing she’d told her friend, “Yeah, I guess he does cuss, but his attitude stinks more than his cuss word.”

__

The last experience with vulgarity or profanity I care to mention in Part 1 came probably 24 or so years ago when I was trying to improve my skills as a novice skier.  My wife had introduced me to the sport and I’d quickly become obsessed with it, though I was terrible at teaching myself the proper techniques.  I’d traveled alone one day to a ski resort in Utah I’d never been to before.  I’d tried a couple blue dot runs (i.e., runs of medium difficulty) and had concluded they were too steep and bumpy to deserve such a low classification.  I was having great fun on the green dot runs, as they were the easiest and allowed me to sail along without fear of falling.  Eventually I came to a run that looked inviting, though maybe a little harder than a green dot run, and it conveniently led down to a ski lift.  Impatient to meet new challenges, I didn’t bother to pull out the trail map to see if the inviting run was green dot or blue dot.  I just started flying down the slope, affecting a casual ease that I only wished was real.  After I got going fast, I caught an edge of my ski in the snow and pitched forward head-over-skis, then head-over-ski-less boots.  As I accelerated toward the bottom, my body was being wrenched and yanked every which way, and I cursed a perfectly articulated blue streak of profanity as a natural response to my sudden, ignominious demise.  When I finally stopped bouncing downward and came to a stop, I looked through the snow packed into my now-cracked goggles and saw my friend and fellow member of the Young Men’s Presidency and his wife staring at me.

To this day, I don’t know whether the visual spectacle or the aural opprobrium, or both, had caught their attention or gone unnoticed.  But the only part of my body functioning perfectly during my descent had been my tongue, lips and mouth cussing out the whole world for allowing my misfortune to “befall” me.  Maybe my friends didn’t even recognize me; I had a lot of snow, and maybe some blood, on my face in and around the ruined goggles.  And maybe they thought it was I, but then concluded it couldn’t be, knowing I’d never talk as profanely as what they’d just heard.  I wasn’t sure they figured out who I was until later when I approached them and started a conversation as if nothing had happened earlier.  If they had overheard my blue streak, however, they probably wondered if I was the type of guy they wanted teaching the gospel to their teenaged sons.

Still, pride, not cursing, goeth before the fall, and the fact I swore my head off during the fall isn’t what I should be most ashamed of.  If I’d not become impatient with the process of looking for the green dot runs in my quest to safely master skiing, and if I hadn’t been so determined to show off how fast I’d picked up the intracacies of the sport, my body and dignity would have survived intact.  Swearing can be bad, but is almost never as bad as what motivates it.

With all this in mind, who do you think spoke the following words?  “Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces, even the dung of your solemn feasts; and one shall take you away with it.”  Might this statement  sound a little vulgar if translated into today’s commonly used terms and spoken from the pulpit in church?  And though “dung” refers to the exact same thing as my dad’s under-the-breath term, is it considered profanity?  More about this in Part 2.

 

 

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