Staff & Sling
Ministry

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

A Rose By Any Other Name ... 

Do you remember when parents taught their children how, and more importantly how not, to speak? I imagine we’ve all heard children using foul language in public, or seen someone wearing clothing imprinted with a vulgar slogan. Perhaps you’ve seen nasty pictures or bumper stickers on cars in traffic. And of course, if you allow television in your home, any television, you’ve doubtlessly had to tell your children that they aren’t allowed to use some of the words they hear. Well, I’ve had a few thoughts on the topic that I’d like to share.

If any man offend (stumble) not in word, the same is a perfect man, ..." (James 3: 2b; parenthetic added).

Okay, first things first. The word translated "perfect" (transliterated from Greek it’s "teleios") does not mean "sinless." It means "complete." This verse, indeed the whole passage, means that it is a sign of spiritual maturity if you can govern your tongue. It shows that God has completed His work in you, maturing you, though that doesn’t necessarily imply that you’ve completed your work for Him, (see Ephesians 2: 10).

There is a woman at our church who has confessed that she struggles with her language constantly. Frankly, from this I infer that she is a very mature Christian. If this is what God is convicting her about, then I suspect He’s pretty much past the rest. But that’s another matter for another day. For discussion today, I suspect that she is having trouble because she still doesn’t recognize the full extent of vulgarity.

Think of it like driving a car. If you think driving on the shoulder is the same as driving in the lane of traffic, you’re going to have a much harder time staying out of the ditch. But once you recognize the lane as being different from the shoulder you’ll get along much easier. So let’s consider how the shoulder can seem to some like the lane.

What words do you teach your children not to say? Except for one in particular, every "dirty" word I can think of has a perfectly legitimate meaning. Moreover, used as such, they are perfectly acceptable words, well suited for use in polite company. But when used in their more colloquial context they become vulgar. So this begs the question, are the words themselves vulgar?

Clearly the answer is no. This is what I teach my children, and what I would submit for your consideration. As written words are the construct of alphabetic constituents, spoken words are the construct of phonemic constituents. There are 26 letters which comprise written English, and there are 44 phonemes (units of sound) which comprise spoken English. There is nothing intrinsically vulgar about any particular sequence of letters, and there is nothing inherently vulgar about any particular phonemic arrangement. What makes words vulgar is what they communicate.

And this brings me to my main thought on this subject. Changing the phonemic construction of a "dirty" word doesn’t make it any less vulgar.

Consider first an example involving written language. Abercrombie and Fitch recently tried to market a product line using the acronym for the brand, "French Connection; United Kingdom." Even though the written word had been changed, it still communicated the same thing as the vulgar arrangement of the same letters. There’s a reason for this, having to do with the way our brain processes visual data, but I am not interested in discussing that. The point I want to make here is that because of what it communicated it was still vulgar. Abercrombie and Fitch may have thought, in some sophomoric way, that they were being cute, but they in fact were just being vulgar.

This is an extreme example, but by no means the only one. Double entendres make vulgar a host of otherwise acceptable communications, both written and spoken. You can’t watch 5 minutes of an old Match Game episode without witnessing exactly what I mean first hand.

So now consider an example involving spoken English, one perhaps less overt than the previous examples. Suppose that instead of using the word for condemnation as an expletive you change the sounds to "darn." I submit that in fact you have communicated precisely the same thought. If it would have been vulgar to say it one way, then it’s still vulgar to say it another. If you are describing part of the human anatomy, is it less vulgar to use the word for a cut of meat, or the remnant of a cigarette, than that for a small donkey? No. It isn’t.

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man" (Matthew 15: 11).
But those things which proceedeth out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man" (Matthew 15: 18).

Do you see? Because of the way our corporeal being works, the written word example above was still vulgar because it still communicated the same thing. Likewise, because of the way our corporeal being works, when we communicate a vulgarity it remains vulgar regardless of the phonemes we choose to express it with. And this defiles the man.

"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" (I Corinthians 3: 16, 17).


James 3: 2   For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same [is] a perfect man, [and] able also to bridle the whole body.

Ephesians 2: 10   For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

Matthew 15: 11   Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man

Matthew 15: 18   But those things which proceedeth out of the mouth come forth from the heart, and they defile the man.

I Corinthians 3: 16, 17    Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.