Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Cussing (Part 2)

But the real deal is that cuss words are defined by the culture in which they exist. And as cultures progress in defining what is the norm, cuss words may become standard, acceptable and expected. As the vernacular is used more and more in popular culture, momentum demands that over time, the words are no longer labeled as unacceptable; no thought is given to what is said because of the abundant use—the culture has re-defined right and wrong use of language.

Still, popular culture accepts it as a fact that cuss words used in conjunction with anger denote the utter seriousness of the person saying the word, whereas ardent anger minus cuss words would not normally be considered as livid as the former by comparison. Culture accepts cussing as normal in most places now—except from religious people. Religious people—people who are zealous for their faith and purpose to live it—are expected to not use cuss words—which only proves that those of the norm (non-religious, including many nominally religious) know that cuss words are indeed ‘bad’—sometimes.

Words have both a connotation and a denotation. The denotation of a cuss word (its primary definition) can be a legitimate use of describing a situation or thing. It is primarily the connotation (the implied meaning) that is used in the curse-word-hoard of the people in our culture. The connotation has nothing to do necessarily with the denotation of the word but is used superlatively to describe a situation or thing (or person). Declaring a situation or thing (or person) superlatively with a cuss word does not necessarily use the denotation, for in many cases that would not make sense. If someone calls another person a pile of animal waste, it is the connotation that is used. The connotation sounds offensive because, as it deviates from the denotation, it can carry lasting, picturesque implications. In this situation, one person is saying of another, that he is worthless, and even more so, he stinks, too. Thus, the connotation carries a meaning equivalent of any interpretation or synonym that the persons listening would not only understand, but deem as acceptable language in describing the character of someone.

“Cussing” is therefore simply a cultural stigma that defines what a curse word is and what is not. The important factor is that in some cases, culture defines what is acceptable and what is not, what is good and what is not, what is sin and what is not (drinking alcohol, eating meat sacrificed to idols, and other habits of life labeled as ‘taboo’). Philippians 3:8 is a prime example of Paul’s use of pejorative language when he says he considers all things (his religious repertoire) as dung (Greek= skubala) compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ his Lord. Skubala carries a picturesque ‘human excrement,’ which in the koine Greek of Paul’s day—the vernacular of the ‘common people,’ is the equivalent of emitting that which most American denote as a swear word (however in Germany the use of this word is ubiquitous and considered apropos for many a situation). This illustration shows how cultures can mandate sinful speech even when the Scripture does not lay out an exact design of what is moral or not. In other words, the translators of the New Testament know that for skubala to carry its full force would offend lots of grandmothers. Because of this sensitivity, translators write “dung” instead of well, something a little stronger.

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