Another third-grader and I got into trouble for using colorful language on the playground at Hugh Goodwin Elementary School in El Dorado, Arkansas in 1948. A bossy girl told the teacher on us and she promptly alerted the principal who called us into the office and read us that scripture about letting your communication be only yea yea or nay nay. When she finished, she said now what do you boys have to say for yourselves? The other kid said in a questioning tone, “Yea yea or nay nay?” That’s when the ping pong paddle came out and not for the game but for a much more serious purpose.
I tried to give up swearing after that deeply felt admonition, but with only moderate success. You see, I had a big brother role model who prided himself on being a good cusser, so it seemed impossible for me to maintain my cleaned up vocabulary for very long. I picked up a bunch of substitute swear words like dang, heck, darn and shoot until my Sunday school teacher told me those were just as bad as saying the words they represented. So, dang it, I tried to give up even those, especially in Sunday school.
In high school, one of the English teachers I admired most proclaimed that people who swear show that their vocabularies are limited, explaining further that cursing is a form of ignorance. Well, I had a strong aversion to being thought ignorant, so I redoubled my efforts at innocuous speech, this time with some success.
I learned that there were acceptable substitutes for swearing when one wanted to emphasize concepts or ideas or just to vent, words like unfortunate, infernal, execrable and regrettable. The only downside of using these words was that I began to seem nerdy to my friends. They mistook my recalcitrance to curse for weakness and thought my use of unusual words was an ill-conceived pretense. In other words, it’s hard to quit swearing once you start.
Mark Twain commented that swearing has the benefit of release of inner turmoil superior even to prayer. I think he was just being funny. He didn’t really believe that and I certainly don’t. I did know a professor in my graduate program, though, who seemed to feel a lot better after he let loose with a string of expletives. This therapeutic form of swearing, though, made him look bad in my eyes, having been indoctrinated by the high school teacher who thought of swearing as a form of ignorance. That prof never measured up to the high intellectual calling he claimed, in my view at least.
It just looks bad when people try to express their anger or frustration by swearing, doesn’t it? Thus, I am making a new resolve to avoid all forms of cursing as a matter of self-control. Call it a Lenten discipline if you want to, but would you care to join me in the resolution. That is, if you still resort to that weak form of communication.