One more category of profanity needs to be hammered out: words that sound like or replace profanities. A few dictionaries call them “mild oaths”. What are they? Profanities purged enough to get by the censors, but not enough to obscure the meaning. Where do they come from? They come from the same place that full-blown swearing comes from: “An evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45b).
I have experience with this. By the time I got to sixth grade, I habitually used all the typical curse words; but because I didn’t want my potty mouth washed out with Camay (cf. the fuller’s soap of Malachi 3:2), I was able to control myself in front of my parents and teachers. Frequently the profane bite their tongues while in the presence of “polite company”. (Of course, God knows every idle word we speak, as well as the heart from which such words proceed.).
Of course, restraining by a half-measure is better than blurting out every foul thought that crosses our minds. But the purity God demands is much higher than simply whitewashing a tombstone, over a grave full of dead men’s bones (see Romans 3:13, Matthew 23). It is a standard of purity that only Christ himself has met and that we only begin to approach when Christ is in us.
None of the mild oaths, as far as I can tell, appear in Noah Webster’s Dictionary of 1828, even though many of these words were already in common use during the colonial era. Perhaps Webster recognized that even talking about profanity should be done delicately by Christians lest we also violate the 3rd commandment. I, too, wrestled with whether these mild oaths should even be named. I first considered the possibility that mild oaths were somehow evil in themselves, serving no purpose, unlike God’s names (God, Almighty, Jesus Christ, Holy Ghost, Jehovah, etc) which, though holy, can be used righteously. It is not the letters and sound that makes profanity evil (we should not be superstitious on this part). The evil lies in their reason for being made and in their intended use, not in their mere existence (compare “we know that an idol is nothing in the world”, I Cor. 8:4).
All that being said, I will mention a few “mild oaths” so our consciences might be pricked: gee whiz, gosh darn, jeeze, dad gum it, egads, and dang. It’s a shame we find many of these words cute or funny, and public figures don’t hesitate to use them. It doesn’t take a linguist or etymologist to recognize them as variations of the Lord’s name. But we are all guilty of letting impure words pass through our lips. We are Christians and need Christ and His Holy Spirit to fill us up and clean us up, from the inside out.
Finally, I must add that it is not my intention to provoke us into the habit of nitpicking the language of everybody around us. We should guard our own hearts and hold our own tongues, as well as guide our own children in this area. Let us not strain at gnats and swallow camels. It is much worse to take God’s Name in vain directly or “mildly” than to occasionally use other words whose source is suspect. We should obey in the former while not neglecting the latter.
A Note on Euphemisms.
Some dictionaries have resorted to calling these words “euphemisms” rather than mild oaths. I think this is a euphemism in itself. There is a huge difference between using a euphemism to discuss a delicate subject such as “passing away” or “going to the bathroom”, and using a watered down form of God’s name in order to be less offensive. One is born of a desire to do what is right, the other to do what is only half wrong. Let us strive to do what is right.
David is currently an adjunct instructor of Composition and Speech at Marshalltown Community College in Iowa. His wife and he have also owned a business selling antique and collectible postcards on eBay since 1999. David was an activist with Operation Rescue in the early 1990s. He is a member of Trinity Presbyterian Reformed Church in Johnston, Iowa.
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