If it weren’t for cursing, some Soldiers would not be able to speak.
Let’s be honest - military personnel curse. Sometimes it seems they invent new swear words. If they don’t swear around you, it’s because they’re being polite, and not being themselves.
It’s not just the little swear words, like “damn,” “hell,” or other words they allow on TV these days. Most of the time, the “F-word” gets in, as well as the “S” word (by the F word, for those who have been sheltered from some of the coarser elements of our society, I mean the word “fuck,” or some derivative of it - the “S” word would be “shit”). So anything annoying, irritating, or just plain stupid gets cursed (e.g., “That’s the stupidest f---ing s--- I’ve ever heard!” It’s absolutely commonplace, and even I use this language more often than I care to admit.
I’m not sure how common bodily functions like sexual relations and the product of going to the bathroom got so demonized in our vocabulary, but somehow these words have become the most vulgar and profane words we use. There is no logical sense to this, because most of the objects cursed by Soldiers cannot have sex or defecate (I.e., “this f---ing piece of s--- is broken”, referring perhaps to a piece of machinery or something else which has malfunctioned). But we use these words all the time anyway.
Perhaps it reflects a negative view of the environment we’re in, or reflects a general anger at being irritated at something. (There’s always something irritating in the military - things don’t work the way we think they should, we get tired, there are hardships we endure at times, etc.) Or perhaps it reflects the coarse nature of the work we do (I recall a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant telling me he told his junior Marines, “We kill people and wreck shit.” In an environment like that, cursing is a bit understandable.)
I’m not sure how some words have become vulgar and others not - we use words to talk about bodily products such as feces, and we have other words for sexual intercourse, like sex, or copulation. Once upon a time, perhaps, “gentlemen” did not even discuss such topics at all. This artificiality has been rejected for a long time now, and people talk much more freely about natural subjects (sometimes even too freely at times!). So the topics described by the curse words themselves are not taboo - it’s just the words themselves.
Perhaps there’s something dark, forbidden about the words that draws us to use them. Like drinking beer and other bad habits, cursing seems to reflect a rejection of the boundaries of polite society. Warriors who train to kill people do not think of themselves as being necessarily very polite. In fact, trying to be too polite may make them less effective as killers. So cursing is a means of rejecting civility.
Some of us have our boundaries. For example, I try not to curse too often, or just to be accepted. There are certain words I cannot bring myself to use (such as G-d d--- or motherf----- and some others). I also never use words specific to ethnicity or race (this is also not tolerated in the Army, and is very rarely heard). And some of our team members rarely curse at all.
I realize the Apostle Paul is quoted as saying, “Let no unwholesome speech depart from your lips,” (Ephesians 4:29, New American Standard Version), and there are many Christians who take this to mean Christians are not to curse. Yet Paul himself uses a coarse term which may be close to a word we often use in the military, when his letter to the Philippians quotes him assaying, “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish,” (Philippians 3:8, NIV). What the NIV interprets “rubbish,” the New American Standard interprets as “dung.” Some scholars even think the term may be even coarser and cruder, more close to our modern term, “shit.”
So there you have it. Paul may have used profanity. Martin Luther was known for being a rather coarse man at times as well, yet he started a Christian movement that continues even today.
I will not try to defend the practice of using profanity. I simply state it as fact. We use it a lot in the Army. I’ll let other people debate whether we should or not. For me, I just go with the old bumper-sticker philosophy that says sometimes, “Shit Happens!”
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.