As a fellow christian I read your article “A Fair Look at Foul Language” and found it less than fair.  I found three major problems with your argument:

1)  The division of “foul” words into a separate category in the first instance
2)  Your defense of what exactly it is that forms these categories
3)  That language can be morally partisan.

You mention two categories of “foul” language, and you define the first very well, in the religious sense, taking God’s name in vain.  We could argue whether saying “Oh my God” is taking God’s name in vain any more than someone saying a prayer that they don’t mean, but however.  But the second category you haven’t defined at all.  You have identified the sorts of SUBJECTS the words are intended to deal with, but you have not defined, at all, which words are at fault and why.  For instance you give examples like “s***” later in your article, without saying why it is in the category of “foul”, but the term “personal waste” is not.  When both describe the same thing, what exactly is it that makes one “foul” and the other not?

And your second point on what is actually WRONG with such language left me completely baffled.  I understand what you mean by “disrespect”, by taking God’s name in vain, one is said to be disrespecting him.  For a christian, this is arguably wrong.  But what you call “inflation”: “using words too strong for the situation until the words lose meaning for many people”, fails to prove that use of such words is “wrong”; instead it simply says that, in your opinion, it is grammatically unwise, nothing else.

Language is a fluid concept, something that continually changes and adapts to fit our needs.  It is a tool, which, when used, can make a multitude of human expressions of communication.  But words, in and of themselves, do not have a moral bias.  It is only emotional human culture that can “make” a word intrinsically bad.  A woman who bares her knees or shoulders in Africa is considered immoral – their cultural norms have dictated that it is taboo. But I should be surprised if you would react so vehemently as those in Africa to an American woman doing the same – it is your cultual norm which informs your emotional response.  In the same way, the words that you describe as “foul” are not “foul” at all, anymore than a musical note can be “foul”, anymore than a specific color in an artist’s palette can be “foul”.

In fact, it is apparent from history that the words our culture finds offensive today (spurred on by folks like yourself) were all at one point entirely inoffensive parts of general vocabulary.  The word “b*****d” for example, is an old English term which describes a child born out of wedlock. Later, by saying that someone was born out of wedlock, the word was used to be insulting.  But this no more makes the word “b*****d” a “foul” word than it makes the word “prostitute” foul in and of itself for a similar reason. It must be used in an insulting sentence to even be insulting!  And, as is often the case, the words that ‘polite’ society find offensive can be anything else to other sections of our culture: rudimentary, humorous, descriptive, even complimentary (as is the case, for instance, with contemporary African-American use of the word “b**ch”).

If you find yourself offended by certain words, sir, I would suggest that you look no further than the culture of your own upbringing, the christian culture (which can be extremely over-sensitive at times), or your own voluntary sensibilities to find out why.  If someone uses a word as part of an insult, be offended, but be so not because of their choice of verb – be offended because they are insulting you in the first place!

Yours faithfully,

-John Wright


Monday, August 9th, 2004

Welcome to the country! Leaving on vacation trip soon, read your message
quickly, maybe can’t do it justice this month, but looking ahead, these

1. You took me seriously enough to review the analysis and opinion. My
compliments; I tried to make it good enough to be worth such a review.
Thank you for considering it worthwhile to discuss these things with me.

2. I might be reflecting a national culture, or even a subculture, in that
what I call foul language is usually used deliberately to make somebody’s
life worse, or carelessly about whether it will do that. That combination
of carelessness or malice might not be universal — which might affect what
should be defined “foul”.

3. I am aware of an irony, not covered in my article: My ancestry includes
a lot of English, which probably means a lot of my ancestors used (without
ill intent) many of the famous “four-letter words” I try studiously to
avoid. The “polite” words were, I think, brought in by French conquerors
and have Latinate roots, with probably little in common with Robin Hood and
his band. So I risk a charge of pretentious snobbery, I suppose, having no
“Norman” roots that I know of.

4. Other than that, I expect to concede some of your points, dispute some,
and puzzle over writing a revised article on the topic. I think I’ll take
a printout of your e-mail with me on my vacation trip. Sometimes I think
and write on camping trips, without spoiling the trip.

Daniel J. Ellsworth (Dan)

John Wright