Watch Your Mouth

by Robine Jean-Pierre a "no cursing" sign on a post outdoors

We know what “curse words,” “cuss words,” or “swear words” are when we hear them. While some people reserve them for when they are angry, others just slip them into casual conversation, often without being completely aware of it. In spite of this, I would argue that most of us, if not all, know deep down that using these words is wrong. Or is it?

Some would argue that curse words are “just words.” Following the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” it is reasonable to propose that words in themselves do not have much power; they are simply abstract thoughts attached to sounds our throats and mouths make, or a collection of characters scrawled or typed on a page.

Others would probably say, “Well yeah, once upon a time those words meant something, but now the definitions have changed, so it doesn’t matter.”  Words change meaning and connotation all the time, sometimes from bad to good or vice versa. The word “fa**ot,” for instance, at one point meant a bundle of sticks, but today it is most often used as an insult hurled at homosexual individuals.

I am of the strong opinion that if a word is or has been recognized as a curse word, we should leave it that way. There is no use trying to reclaim, repurpose, or redefine a word when the better option would be to refuse it altogether. Take the “n-word,” for instance. If it started off as a derogatory, dehumanizing word to describe Black slaves (and eventually their non-slave descendants), I do not agree with Black men calling each other that, putting it in the same category as “friend,” “brother” or “homie”; it just seems foolish and backwards. To make things more complicated, the reclaimed word is not even limited to Black culture anymore; I have seen a Latino boy call his younger brother that, and Asian friends call each other that, just to point out a few examples. Why has a word with such a haunting past now pervaded popular culture?

The bottom line is that I do not believe it’s right to curse, yet I admit that lately, even I do. This is due, in part, to spending a lot of time around fellow college students, many of whom do not share the same convictions or inhibitions as me. While I do not use these words in conversation, I do mutter them under my breath, or scream them in my head when provoked by a disgruntling situation. Sometimes I am not even that upset; it could be something small like not knowing where I put my glasses, or my phone acting up, and I ask myself, “Where are my [bleeping] glasses?” or say, “This stupid piece of [bleep].” The worst part is–I can’t lie–I do get a temporary sense of relief and empowerment when I use these words; it’s as if I can feel the steam being released from my ears.

However, even if that’s the case, then I have to ask myself, why use a negative outlet for my anger when I could use a positive one, one that would add to my overall self-image and wellbeing, rather than take away from it?

I am always reminded of an episode of SpongeBob Squarepants in which Patrick referred to the curse words that SpongeBob recently learned as “sentence enhancers.” On the contrary, I feel that curse words cheapen conversation and weaken the integrity of the sentence that was just spoken. Even some of my professors curse, and while they probably do this to appear relatable, comfortable, or demonstrate that “we are all adults here,” instead it just shows a lack of respect on the part of the speaker for whoever hears them. I am grateful for my engineering drawing professor who made it a policy for us not to curse in class; this was one of the ways he advocated for a professional environment in which we all treated each other with respect.

Perhaps, as in many cases, the problem is not the words we use per se. The problem is that we often give ourselves up to self-deprecating behavior. We look for the easy, sleazy, instantly gratifying ways to express ourselves instead of the wholesome, worthwhile, thoughtful ways. Just imagine an employee who does not get the promotion she was hoping for. Instead of releasing the frustration through something she loves, like bike riding or painting, she chooses to drown out her problems by getting drunk that night, and lashes out at her husband. This is a disheartening but very common story.

And unfortunately, many of us have not been taught alternatives. Often times, our bad habits are learned behaviors, and our family and friends make the best teachers. To give one example, how many times does an abusive parent breed a child who grows up to become an abusive spouse? For both the parent and child, violence is the only way they know to dispose of anger and rejection, rather than through hobbies, counseling, sports, etc.

To make matters worse, we then paint the cheaper, detrimental mode of expression as better because we are afraid to want better for ourselves. To bring it back to the subject of cursing, if we do not curse or are not O.K. with having a friend call us the “b-word,” we fear being labeled as a “goody-two shoes” or a self-righteous prude. It’s easy to curse because “everyone else is doing it” or “it’s just words” but the reality is, when we do, we prove that we have a limited vocabulary and an even more limited view of ourselves and others.

We can keep ourselves in check by asking questions like: “How would I feel if I heard my (future) children use those words? How would my grandmother react to it? Would I expect my prospective boss to hire me if I used those words during the interview?” Sure, these are generalized questions; some people work in an environment that is not as strict, and some people have parents and/or children who curse along with them–but I hope you get the point.

Substituting curse words with sound-alike euphemisms is not a long-term solution, but it is a decent place to start. Wean yourself off of F-bombs with “fudge” or “freak,” but as I said earlier, the words in themselves are not the heart of the problem; they are the just the symptom.  If you feel like it is acceptable to hurl demeaning insults at someone because he took a parking space (or seat on the train) before you did, then the problem is that you do not value and respect people as much as you should.

Furthermore, do you realize that you can damage someone’s psyche without ever letting a curse word escape your lips? Whether you vocalize those emotions or keep them inside, whether you express them with curse words or with scholarly, ostentatious words, your hatred toward someone is just as dangerous and real, and it needs to be handled in a healthy way.

So, I encourage you to find healthy ways to express your emotions, whether joy, lovesickness, pain, or anger. Find what you are passionate about and pursue it. Think before you speak and act. As with any negative habit, it may take Proverbs 18:21 written in artistic forma lot of time and determination to break it, but if you watch your mouth, I guarantee that the results will be sweet.

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (Proverbs 18:21a, The Holy Bible)

10 thoughts on “Watch Your Mouth

  1. Aside from words being offensive, our words also hold the power, I think the most powerful tool known to man. I think reclamation of certain words can be interesting as it’s a very empowering and controversial concept. I liked reading your take on it.

  2. Interesting points raised here! Personally, I use curse words sparingly (usually muttering at someone or something) because I know it can offend or put people on guard easily. Honestly, I don’t think using curse words is wrong – its simply a way of expressing your anger/frustration/pent up emotions. Sometimes theres no better word for it then f*** or s*** its straight and to the point and people understand. Like…when I find something to be extraordinary or something that just blows my mind I’ll say its F******g awesome and while this may not float in professional work settings…with friends and peers its fine. So I do believe the environment you’re in dictates whether or not curse words will paint a more negative or positive image of yourself.
    As for the n word…I’m not so sure where I stand. First off disclosure: I’m a non-black POC. I agree with many on the points you made about reclaiming/repurposing. Since the word was never created by Africans, it can never actually be reclaimed so I see it more from the lens of repurposing and “owning” those ideas attached to the word while simultaneously going beyond that. To illustrate my point, many hip hop moguls use the word in a positive and negative light – sometimes it to talk down to/bring up their people. Many hip hop legends escape poverty and use their platforms to communicate with people who belong to the same socioeconomic background they once belonged in. So even if the said artist had an extensive vocabulary and was very articulate, s/he would use those words which most resonate and strike a chord. While not all hip hop artists are alike and not all promote great lifestyles in their music, in the end their expression allows people from different backgrounds simulate what its like to live that life or go through a certain experience and if curse words need to be used thats fine.
    As for me, I keep it to a minimum and like you said – try to find new words to express what I’m feeling. In fact Malcolm X provides some insight into this in his autobiography. He mentions having to learn more sophisticated words in order to be persuasive and convince more educated people instead of people on the streets.

    • Very well said Maybe, and thanks so much for giving your insight! I know for many, these issues are not black and white. I have given my simplified response but there are plenty of nuances that I may not have addressed here. I would definitely like to check out that autobiography. Once again I appreciate your support and input.

  3. Robine,
    Thank you so much for addressing a topic that many people a scared to even approach. We need more people like you in the world who aren’t afraid to speak up, and say what’s on their mind because I guarantee you that your words speak volumes to other people who are afraid to have their voice heard.

  4. I used to looked at curse words as something cool based from seeing them said in films that loved. So being valugar was something I aspired to do. But something changed my ideals growing up seeing women call their best friends B**** and men use N***** as pronouns for both loved ones and strangers that made it seem not as attractive , even dehumanizing in a subconscious way. Most people either say their reclaiming those words or just like saying them but maybe it’s a part of them in a bondage sort of way that needs to be broken. It’s an excuse not to learn new words of express, stay dumbed down and possibly emotionally stunted. My struggle with cursing is still ongoing but everday is a new opportunity to do better.I hope your post reaches other people who need to read it.

    • I appreciate you sharing your personal experience with cursing. It can be hard to admit that something you’re still struggling with is wrong. I believe we will both overcome in time.

  5. Very interesting read. I recently read an article that claimed people who curse are more intelligent than those who do not. I have always found that people who can articulate themselves without demeaning themselves or others are far more intelligent. Not to mention wise. Words are so powerful and I think we have to learn to take ownership of what we say. Be more intentional and less provocative. More deliberate and less emotional. I also find comedians who can make jokes without cursing the funniest. Great post!

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