*If you are bothered by strong language or sexual conversation, please have your smelling salts and a firm couch at the ready. Click all links at your own risk.
**Please note that I’m making a distinction between profanity and blasphemy. Thou shalt not (never, as in not ever) take the Lord’s name in vain.
I like to cuss. There’s something healing about a profanity that rolls off the tongue as you smash your finger or stub your toe. Swearing can be funny, stinging, even smart. Colorful language is like cayenne pepper: too much, and the dish is inedible. Vulgar. Used judiciously and sparingly, it’s just the right punch needed for a witty remark, earnest anger, or late-night conversation in the local bar. But regardless of my love affair with the swear, there is one word I’m attempting to jettison from my vocabulary for good.
Though the “f-word” has been used to describe sexual activity since the fourteenth century, it’s been taboo for our society for hundreds of years. It’s mostly forbidden in the news, a no-go on major television networks, and still gets you in trouble with the judge, the teacher, and your parents. But time marches on. TV shows, comedy bits, pop music, film, and even “children’s” books have been pushing the obscenity envelope since the sexual and cultural revolution began, often with hilarious results. The f-word is less shocking and more prevalent all the time. We use it in every part of speech, and many people don’t even associate it with the sexual act. So why give a flying?
In the brilliant essay, “Dorothy Day and Eros,” Servant of God Dorothy Day is said to have banished from her Catholic Worker house during the 1960s “some young bohemians after they used the printing equipment for an obscene magazine entitled ‘F*** You.’ The use of the word shocked her: It showed contempt, she wrote in her diary, ‘for the very sources of life itself.’ It was a ‘breath of evil,’ a blasphemous nihilism which maimed ‘the creativity within them.’ To profane the creativity of sexual desire, in word or in deed, was a kind of self-harm.”
This account is also found in All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, where the diary entry is printed in in its entirety:
“They have shown hatred, contempt for the very sources of life itself, and have defaced in every way the creativity within them, a blasphemy and a horror from which one can only recoil with fear and disgust at this breath of evil among us.”-March 2, 1962
Dorothy Day was no prude. She was a suffragette, a proto-hippie, a free-love advocate, a birth control activist, a radical, and a Communist before converting to Catholicism in 1927. Working with and living among the poor and the bohemian until her death, she would have seen things shocking to even today’s edgiest entertainers. She had so much greater injustice and filth to worry about than a dirty magazine. Yet, there it is, in black and white:
“They have defaced in every way the creativity within them.”
Words have profound meaning, lasting connotations, definite definitions. Even as our language meanders through centuries and cultures, what we once meant to say is still layered underneath, like the imprint of writing in the next page of the notebook.
The original meaning of the word is “to have sexual intercourse with someone.” In the light of our Faith this means “man and woman giv[ing] themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses … [It is] not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death … The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life.”
Another meaning, slightly newer: “To ruin or damage something.” Or even simpler and more modern: a phrase to “express anger, annoyance, contempt, impatience or surprise, or simply for emphasis.”
Our culture has flippantly, dismissively and even violently done away with every form of traditional sexual ethics. There is hardly a rose-tinted past of sexual morality to which we could return, but our idea of what sex means veers farther and farther from the narrow way. That integral part of married love? We casually lump it in with damage and ruin and plain old contempt. That creative spark that lives between a husband and wife? We use it interchangeably with annoyance, or bumping our head on a sharp corner. We cheapen our actions and words, until at last, sex is just an exclamatory but interchangeable pastime, not all that special but still useful in a utilitarian sort of way. By using the f-word, we dampen and blaspheme our idea of love. We harm ourselves and others — first with a bang, but then with a pitiful profane whimper.
We have so much injustice and filth to combat, so deeply rooted, the f-word might seem like the least of our worries. But what we say, and what those words mean when we say them, shapes who we become.
“I tell you, on the day of judgement, you will have to account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”-Matthew 12:36-37