Social Issues

learning the words: even the ugly ones

woman cursingToday’s guest post is from Dani Kelley, who writes about feminism, abuse, and recovery at Crooked Neighbor, Crooked HeartAlso, I’ve been so freaking excited about this post for a while, and I’m thrilled I get to share it with you.
“Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

The past few years, I have been on an intentional journey into freedom from the panic, rage, and fear that has been the constant undercurrent of my young life. A big part of that journey has included the freedom to look at the horrible things in life and to say with confidence and conviction, “Fuck. This. Shit.”

Profanity was not allowed when I was growing up (and at the time words like “heck,” “gosh,” “darn,” and “shut up” were included). There were always lots of reasons given, mostly in the form of Bible verses about letting no profane word come out of your mouth or letting your speech be always with grace seasoned with salt. One that always stuck out and appealed to me was that people only swear because they lack the intelligence and vocabulary to otherwise express themselves.

I call bullshit.

Another that I heard a lot (and continue to hear) is that profanity just isn’t appropriate. It isn’t very nice. It’s especially not something that good girls use when speaking.

I say, fuck that.

On some level, I’ve always understood the power of words. I remember as a young child, when a terrifying rage I couldn’t understand would boil up inside me, I would brokenly tell God that I didn’t know what the heck to do. (In my more honest moments, I would actually say hell. I’ll give you a moment to gasp and clutch your pearls.)

As a teenager and young adult, I waffled back and forth on my stance on language. Many times I would cling to my moderately impressive vocabulary and spout the “I’m too smart to swear” defense, hiding behind my classism and ableism like a child hides behind his mother’s skirts. Other times, the pain of a dozen betrayals, great and small, would overwhelm me until I swore quietly to myself (or violently to trusted friends) as a release valve.

Then there were the other times, the more dangerous times, when I used the strength of cursing to inflict pain on myself, to condemn myself for my perceived Biblically-declared depravity, filth, and worthlessness. It seemed to me that the Bible’s strongest language was reserved for sinners, to describe the depth of our evil. And so I internalized that message and adopted such language most harshly for myself, because I was convinced that I was unworthy and unclean.

(Allow me a moment to again say, FUCK. THAT. NOISE.)


Without profanity, I never had the words to deal with the horrible situations in my life and in the lives of others — the betrayals, the abuses, the heartbreaks and horrors, the ever-growing doubt about whether God was good or a monster. There simply were not Christian words strong enough to do these things justice. Instead, I made myself as numb as I could to pain, and I kept it carefully bottled inside, shared only with a few trusted friends, and only then what was acceptable to share. I hid my panic, I hid my rage, I hid my doubts, I hid the depth of the wounds that were so deep I couldn’t hide them even though I wanted to. I hid them all with my exemplary vocabulary, Christian platitudes, acceptable euphemisms, and cheap imitation curses.

But after years and years of hiding and self-destructing, it has gotten too damn hard, and I am done.

I’m not hiding the pain anymore. I’m not hiding the doubt, fear, or rage. I am describing them with the most colorful language I can muster, to paint the clearest picture I can. I am living openly and honestly and looking you straight in the eye when I do so instead of ducking my head and muttering, “His ways are higher than our ways,” or “Just trust in the Lord and everything will work out for His glory!” I am grabbing your hand and saying with confidence, “This shit is fucked, and I am so sorry, and I love you and we will get through this.”

And in all of this, the dark places are being exposed, and I can see a little more clearly, breathe a little more freely. I’m finding a smidgen of peace through this seemingly tiny thing of finally allowing the ugly words to describe the ugly things in life.

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  • Pingback: Learning the words: even the ugly ones. | crooked neighbor, crooked heart.()

  • This continues to be a blog I’m happy I discovered. Keep up the good work!

  • cm

    cannot even begin to count how many times I have reached that place where the only words are ” f%^ this s#!+”.

  • Well done!

  • notleia

    I’ve grown to love swear words. Maybe it’s just part of the typical rebellion of distancing myself from my parents’ authority and establishing myself as a goddamn, motherfucking adult with fucking valid opinions of my own. Though it’s probably ironic that I don’t do it front of my parents because I don’t want another pained lecture where I can see them regretting all the things they didn’t do while I was younger to “fix” me.

  • THANK YOU! I’ve been working on this. When I first met my Texan husband; raised in a mostly-normal, love household, he freaked out when I would say anything off-color and it was deeply hurtful to me on my journey. It was raised in a situation that, without exaggeration could be called tortuous. As I got away from them, married against their wishes and started a new, beautiful life, I found that I needed those words because nothing else would explain the abuse and trauma I had experienced. My husband would always bristle and say “you were raised better than that.” Which made me even angrier. I wasn’t trying to be polite, I was trying to do the hard work of breaking chains and I was reaching out for the freedom to speak when I had been beaten into silence, shamed into silence, isolated to keep silent, stalked into silence. I NEEDED MY VOICE! I finally broke through to my husband who had been extremely supportive in every other way of my recovery. He no longer gives icy silence or sidelong glances when I curse. I curse when I need to. I don’t hide the words from my daughter either. I want her to understand that although some words she may not understand (and therefore may be too young to wield) that people in songs, in poetry, in many ways of expression use strong words because they have strong feelings. She can have those words when she understands them and when she needs them. Words are powerful and they shouldn’t be denied to those of us who need them most.

  • words only have the power we give them. fearing a word gives it the power to hurt.

    • Probably the most important thing Harry Potter taught me: fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.

      • Tiffany

        One of the MANY priceless things Harry Potter taught me 😀

  • Whew, I needed to read this. I’m finally able to embrace the validity of things like “FUCK MY UPBRINGING!” <- meaning the mad parts of it. 😛 May I cross-post this on my blog?

  • Morgan Guyton

    I think the key question is whether we’re using these words to describe situations or using them against other people. If something someone else has been through is bullshit, then it’s like I’m not willing to see all that has happened to them if I say bummer instead of bullshit. At the sake time, I do think its a legit concern not to use these words in the context of a heated argument with another person because it can quickly become verbal violence against them.

  • Alice

    I also grew up not even being allowed to say mild swear words like “hell” or “darn.” I really appreciate being able to use profanity now, because sometimes nothing else will do. The milder words just don’t convey the same meaning.

    However I do have mixed feelings about “fuck” since it has a violent sexual connotation, and that could be considered a part of rape culture? Especially “fuck you?”

    • I can understand this concern. I just wanted to point out something that’s a common misconception. You probably are already aware, but I like breaking down rape myths when I can.

      Violent sex is not the same thing as aggressive sex. Fuck can also mean aggressive sex, as well as having almost zero connection with sex at all.

      Also, rape is not the same thing as violent sex. Rape is non-consensual sex. Consensual sex can be violent, if the partners want it to be.

      Also, rape is frequently- I’d guess usually- not violent. Neither of my rapes were violent.

      This is a very common misconception. It’s so common, many rape victims aren’t able to identify what is happening to them as rape until afterward.

      I just wanted to make sure that this was clear for the sake of other readers.

    • I appreciate Samantha’s clarification. Also wanted to say that “fuck” was the word that I held out on using for the longest time. It felt dirtier than the rest, less okay than the rest. And weirdly, it seems to be the most healing now. It’s difficult to describe or explain.

  • Carol

    Yes, there are times when the “f” and the “s” words are very cathartic:

    “Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words.”
    — Calvin and Hobbes comic strip

    I think that the shock value of certain words is more cultural than religious. It became acceptable to say that you had been “screwed” in the WWII generation, while claiming to have been “fucked” usually brings at least a scowl of disapproval from them.

    Go figure!

    It just goes to prove that the Enlightenment presupposition that education and logic will make people behave rationally is a secular heresy.

  • Yes! Thinking about profanity and embracing it as a productive, useful attribute of language also helped me re-evaluate my relationship with scripture.

  • Thanks for the honesty. I wonder if the opposite of your main point is true too: that powerful curse words can be drained of their stringent power if they simply become normal adjectives used ten times in a paragraph when someone isn’t even upset? It seems like, when people use curses as their go-to adjectives for any and every subject (walk behind a college kid at Walmart) they actually lose what would otherwise have served as a cathartic release if it hadn’t been so routine-ized? Thanks for your first-hand description of the pain forms of religion can cause… you’ve provided some helpful sermon material.

  • Marie

    I was telling my sister the other day about I guy at a football game who was rude to our family, and I mentioned that “I made a bitch face at him” afterward. So after the call I felt some pangs of guilt—even though I used the word in reference to myself, not someone else! Argh…

  • Tiffany

    Curse words are only as strong as the culture makes them. The word ‘sucks’ was once shocking to my mother’s generation… now it is so accepted it’s on prime time TV. Any curse word, used often enough by enough people, will become less powerful. It will lose it’s original (usually socially unacceptable) meaning and take on it’s own meaning as an expression of outrage/disgust, which will in turn lead to it weakening.

    Curse words aren’t static. They are, like all human language, fluid and dynamic. They transform, they change. In 1304 in Europe they did not say ‘fuck’, but I’m willing to venture they had a word which MEANT violent sex and they used it as an expletive.

    I was raised by parents who had been very familiar with swearing before their conversion to Christianity; my mother, who had been raised in a religious home, had more reserve about it, but my father, being pagan and Scotch-Irish by descent, had always enjoy language in all it’s breadth and depth and vivid color, and how was he to exclude colorful metaphors? He tried, really, he did: valiantly, he reigned in his desire to use the strongest language for the strongest feelings–he substituted cheap knock-offs like ‘shoot’ ‘dang’ and ‘dog gone’ for the real things… and still, the people in our church judged. My friends informed me often and primly how very sinful it was to say ‘shoot’ since that was merely a *substitute* for a bad word… they pursed their lips when I slipped and said ‘dangit’ as I was allowed to at home, and I was filled with a sense of shame that *my parents* were the only ones in our tight-knit circle who were unable to attain Godliness in this area, as indeed they were unable in many areas… my mother dressed like the world, from her matching fuschia lipstick and nails to her darling high-heels, and my father drank non-alchoholic beer and said ‘crap’ when he busted a toenail. My family was awash in compromise, and our language was a constant reminder we were the black sheep.

    When I was eleven, I discovered the shocking fact that quietly saying ‘damn’ beneath by breath when I stubbed my toenail made it hurt less. The studies to say this was actually scientific fact weren’t out yet, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they were: I used this pain relief, but spent time asking for a clean heart and mouth after. Ironic how penitential protestants can be.

    When I reached my teen years, I began to feel frustration rather than simply shame with these restrictions–I began to wonder how in the name of all that was holy it was permissable to say “You be QUIET!” but “shut up” was evil; how bellowing “AAARRRGHHH” in pain was holier than “DANGIT!”, or for that matter, “DAMMIT!” because I’d realized something: the emotion behind it was the SAME. And God, I’d been taught, looked at the heart, not the exterior. If it was all right to feel pain, and to yell in frustration, why were the words used so important? About that time, I began to take secret sly delight in the expressions I received when I announced ‘this is crap’ in front of my friends, about appropriately crappy things, and using hell as an expression of frustration.

    I have since come to understand that being human is a ridiculously complex affair, and speaking human is wildly nuanced. It’s taken me eighteen years of adult life to stop wincing when someone else says ‘fuck’, and until three months ago to use it myself, as it is culturally understood, for an expression of something which is deeply, horribly wrong with the world.

    I still don’t personally use the strongest words for anything but the strongest feelings–they are like the heavy ammunition, brought out only when nothing else will do, and I don’t want to lose the impact, in true Celtic fashion, of a good dramatic moment when telling a story or relating an emotion! However I realized that by the time I’m a grandmother, telling my progeny that this old world is a fucked up place won’t carry the same punch, and I sure as hell don’t want to be the hypocritical elder judging the younger for their brave new words. I hope I can adapt and learn to speak their language, or at least *try* to appreciate the emotion and intent behind the expression.


  • While I totally respect and understand this, let’s not forget definitions. The S word has the same definition as dung, so it’s stupid that one should be more offensive than the other. The F word, on the other hand, means something that shouldn’t be talked about casually. To use “damn” and “hell” as expletives is to make light of God’s justice, and of course words like “Goddamn” are clearly sinful because God forbids us to use His name in vain. So let’s remember that the Bible says “Be angry and do not sin”, and monitor which ugly words we use by their definitions.

    • Why shouldn’t sex be talked about casually? You’re making an assumption that many people here don’t agree with. I talk casually about sex all of the time.

      Also, I don’t believe in the “eternal conscious torment” that many Christians think of as hell, and I don’t think God “damms” anyone– I think we damn ourselves, so saying that those words “make light of God’s justice” doesn’t mean much to me.

      I also think that the interpretation of “don’t take God’s name in vain” means “don’t say God dammit” is flat wrong. The Bible offers commentary about what that means, and in places like Amos it seems clear to me that “don’t use God’s name in vain” is much, much closer to “don’t you dare say God is on your side” or “don’t try to use God as a prop to make you seem better than people you think are inferior” (*coughAmericacough*) than “don’t swear with the word ‘God’ in it”.

      Personally, I think the phrase ‘clearly sinful’ is a little ridiculous, especially when we’re discussing something as petty and inconsequential as whether or not I say fuck.

      • Nathan A. Wright

        Sorry I didn’t see this sooner… I subscribed to comments, but I didn’t get e-mailed when you posted this.

        Anyway, don’t you think that sex is a delicate topic that should be handled with care? Hebrews 13:4 says “Let marriage be held in honor among all . . .” Sex is holy and beautiful in the sight of God. Is He pleased when we trash it by using it as an expletive? I don’t think that qualifies as holding it in the kind of honor we should hold it in. That verse makes it clear that it should be extraordinarily honored.

        It’s the same with God’s name. Is God pleased when we use His holy and precious name flippantly? I agree with your interpretation of “using God’s name in vain”, but I think it refers to both of our interpretations. Either way, it goes against the principle of being respectful and reverent.

        If that’s the way you want to look at the word “damn”, I can understand where you’re coming from. But the thing people will think of when they hear that word is Hell; so I think it’s a bad example to use it. Now, do you mean you don’t believe there is a Hell, or you just don’t believe it’s eternal?

        Matthew 12:36 says, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.”

        • 1) This is not how language works.

          “Fuck” does not mean “to have sex” except in pretty rare instances. “I want to fuck you” means “I want to have sex with you.” However, “I want to fuck with you” means something utterly different– it means “I want to screw with your head/play pranks/etc.” For the vast majority of the time, “fuck” functions as an intensifier. It is nothing more than a synonym for “really” as in “This is really awful.”

          You can’t make language do and be whatever you want it to in order to support a weak argument.

          2) “God” is not his/her/their name. It’s a word. It means deity. It’s actually a rather vague word that can refer to literally thousands of different characters.

          3) And really– people will think of “hell” when they hear the word “damn”? What planet do you live on where this is universally true?

          4) I am not being careless when I swear. It is intentional and I am very thoughtful about it. So yeah. I think I’m good.

          • Nathan A. Wright

            Okay… I get what you’re saying about the F word. You’re right about the definition. I didn’t know why I didn’t think of that myself, actually; ’cause I know people say “f–ked up” and stuff like that… which just means “messed up”. (I’m still not comfortable saying it myself, and I honestly still think it’s unwise word choice; but I can respect your position better now.)

            True; “God” isn’t Jehovah’s actual name. Still, He is God–the God–and it’s not reverent to be so flippant about it.

            I live on planet earth. You?

            In our culture, “damn” is generally understood to refer to eternal damnation. If you don’t believe in Hell, though, you naturally wouldn’t agree with this. I’m not saying that justifies it, but Hell is a separate topic.

  • Aimee

    Wow. I love this whole series, but this. This, so fucking much. This is all so me. I always say that my dad taught me to curse, because while I was smilingly “helping” him run his small business (aka doing all the work while he stood by and criticized me), I cursed a blue streak under my breath. I became fluent at it and it helped me through a time when I had no other way to express that emotion. So fuck yeah. Words are words. Let’s use them like free people.

    (Incidentally, I write this with my 2-year-old sleeping on my chest, who has passed her day playing outside, yelling, “Mommy!! Fucking. Dammit!!” Not something I taught her on purpose, but I sure do think it’s great. And she won’t get punished for it in any form or fashion, not ever. Yay me.)