Watching the words we say

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The other day, while sitting in a midday meeting comprised of folk of both genders, an articulate, well-dressed speaker let loose of a profanity that literally led me to choke a bit on my water. Without further elaboration, I'd describe the word as a midrange epithet. Not garden variety swearing but not heavy duty cursing either. If the purpose was to revive us from drowsy attention spans brought on by an excellent repast, the method brought the desired response.

Back in the '70s, I worked two summers in a steel fabricating plant. It was an education in some of the most colorful language imaginable. There was a machinist who literally could not speak a full sentence without swearing. Another man's word choice leaned so far into profanity, that some of us college kids used to count the swear words used in a single conversation. We would then compare notes afterward to see if we all ended up with the same number.

Is language disintegrating? There is evidence to suggest it. The Parents Television Council found the use of a muted or bleeped F-word jumped 2,409 percent between 2005 and 2010. To quote the council, "it went from 11 total instances to 276 over those five years …[this] doesn't even include cable-network variety shows, where it's possible to hear 'bleep' used as a verb, noun, pronoun, adjective, and gerund -- all in one sentence."

A lecturer at a British university once conducted an experiment to test a hypothesis. He had students immerse their hands in ice-cold water for as long as possible. Invariably, the students employed a muttered profanity during this deep-freeze experiment. Conclusion? The use of curse words causes adrenaline to surge through our bodies, increases the heart rate, sparks the body's flight-or-fight response and, most interestingly, made the students "better able to tolerate pain."

Having no desire to quarrel with a noted academician, there can be other ways to deal with suffering. For example, I doubt that my Lord cursed from the cross to ease his pain during the agony of crucifixion -- whatever profanity sounded like in 1st century Aramaic. The prospect is simply beyond my ability to comprehend. Several of the so-called "seven last words" spoken by Jesus from Golgotha are some of the most inspiring utterances ever put to print: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do;" "Son, behold your mother. Mother, behold, your son;" "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." There may be a valuable lesson for us in considering the Lord's passion. As he writhed in unimaginable torment, gasping for breath, he turned his thoughts toward others. Jesus reframed his own thinking toward the other -- and in doing so, had enough reserves to endure to the end.

Someone will quote me Mark 11:12-14 -- the Lord's cursing of the fig tree. The curse a hungry Jesus uttered had nothing to do with the profanity of today. To wit: "May no one ever eat fruit from you again."

No, his words were not salubrious on that occasion -- yet they are far from profane.

One of our learned seniors at Chateau Girardeau shared with me a quote attributed to Aristophanes: "From the murmur and the subtlety of suspicion with which we vex one another, give us rest. Make a new beginning, and mingle again the kindred of the nations in the alchemy of love. And with some finer essence of forbearance -- temper our mind."

Temper our minds -- indeed.

Writer's note: In my Jan. 20 column, I made reference to natural gas "fracking" wells being drilled a million feet deep. A million feet is an impossibility. The actual drilling depth is about 10,000 feet. I regret the error.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is executive director of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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