Do you remember when you were 13 or 14 years old and your friends started cussing? At first, it was like they were test driving a car. Not a new luxury vehicle, but a hail-damaged Yugo that was missing its front fender. Six months ago, they weren’t cussing. But now they are. Why the change? It’s a fascinating thing. Why do teenagers begin cussing? Especially teenage boys.
To cuss is to use language that is profane, crude, vulgar, obscene, or curst. Profanity is that which devalues the sacred. The word ‘profane’ comes from the Latin profanus which means “outside the temple, not sacred.” That which is profane doesn’t respect religious practice. It’s turning the sacred into the secular, dragging the high down low, putting the queen in a Dodgers hat rather than a crown. Words like “damn” and “hell” are important realities that reflect a sacred order, which is why it is profane when they are used in a way that belittles the weightiness of damnation or hell.
Crudeness mocks the pure. The word ‘crude’ comes from the Latin crudus which means “raw, rough.” Course joking is often sexual, mocking the marital bed. Crudeness perverts what God has made smooth, turning it rough.
Vulgarity exalts the ordinary. The word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris which means “common.” Ordinary language is appropriate when the grease monkeys are installing a new flux capacitor, but not when they are sharing their condolences with the widow in the receiving line. The sin of vulgarity happens when the common is used in the wrong setting.
Obscenity lauds evil. The word “obscene” comes from the Latin obscaenus which means “ill-omened or abominable.” It is that which is offensive to public decency. It is promoting evil in the public square for praise, for example, depicting adultery as something commendable.
Cursing wishes affliction upon another person. The Hebrew word for curse is ʾārar. It is an appeal to God to inflict injury on someone. In the Bible, it is the opposite of blessing. God pronounces curses in response to sin (Num. 5:21; Dt. 29:19f) as a judgment (Is. 24:6). Paul tells Christians to “bless and do not curse” because vengeance belongs to the Lord (Rom. 12:14, 19). Yet Paul announces a curse upon unbelievers, saying, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed. Our Lord, come!” The imprecator Psalms also contain curses against God’s enemies (Psalm 5, 17, 59, 70, 71, 74, etc.), which suggests cursing does have discriminate use.
We know that bad words should not be part of the ordinary language of Christians. Paul wrote, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). Also, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place” (Eph. 5:4). Elsewhere, “put away … obscene talk from your mouth (Col. 3:8). It’s rather straightforward even if there are biblical exceptions to using foul language.
If we are going to train our children for godliness (1 Tim. 4:7), we need to understand why teenagers, even Christian teenagers, begin cussing. Consider three reasons that are far from exhaustive.
First, to appear macho
Take a moment to reflect on Richard Millhouse Nixon. In the American memory, Nixon is a cartoon monster replete with arms and torso that are out of proportion to the rest of his body. This monstrous image is largely derived from the White House recordings where Nixon said some monstrous things, including anti-Semitic slurs. He also cussed a lot. When you compare the Nixon tapes to those of his predecessor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, you find that Johnson also cussed a lot.
Part of the reason Nixon cusses so much is that he admired LBJ. He thought LBJ was a manly politician and Nixon aspired to be as much. When LBJ cussed it was clear he knew what he was doing. He knew how to drop a high-powered “S” bomb for maximum effect while lacing the rest of his speech with a scatter-bombing of hells and damns. Cussing was natural to LBJ. He was a crude, macho guy. A brute, as the historians tell us. And like most brutes, he was good at cussing.
When Nixon cusses it sounds awkward. Samuel Clemens might say of Nixon, he had the right words but the wrong tune. Deep in his heart, Nixon was a shy, introverted intellectual. But Nixon looked at LBJ—the long-time Senate majority leader, then Vice-President, and finally President—as someone who was winning at American politics. Nixon felt like if he was going to win in the beltway, he needed to be macho like LBJ and JFK. He saw how they played dirty and got away with it. This is where Nixon gets himself in trouble, trying to be something he is not. All his swearing and profanity was an attempt to appear macho. It was the attempt to exaggerate his manliness and assertiveness.
It’s the macho conceit to think that cussing demonstrates maturity, manliness, and might. When boys become teenagers, they want to appear to be independent and masculine. Still in their salad days—green from lack of experience—they think shortcuts work. Cussing seems like a shortcut to masculine respect, signaling that they have more freedom and fewer boundaries. But there is no shortcut to maturity. Growing into maturity happens by seeking responsibility—showing up to work on time, turning in assignments on time, mowing the lawn, bringing interesting questions to the dinner table, and befriending the new kid. Responsibility is not the gloomy albatross it’s made out to be. It’s the ‘hopeful position’ because it says that immaturity can be corrected. Personal responsibility not only honors the Lord but wins the respect of others. But, as Richard Nixon learned, when you cuss to appear macho, it’s hard for people to respect you.
Second, to mimic what they think is cool
We mimic those we admire. As children grow up, they tend to pattern themselves after those people who impress them. Children imitate their behavior and reproduce their speech. When children are young their family is their entire world of meaning, so they mimic their parents and siblings. As they grow up and gain a sense of the larger world around them, their mimetic focus shifts to creative people who are known for pioneering accomplishments and challenging the status quo.
Societally, it was once the case that the lower class admired the learning and style of the upper class. As the proletariat has gained affluence, the upper and middle class have come to admire the unrefined manner of the lower class. Arnold Toynbee and Christopher Dawson have studied this phenomenon in application to art. The mark of culture’s decline is when crude art is seen as progress. Think, for example, about how many more middle-class teenagers sing along with the profanity and sexually explicit lyrics of a rap song than those who listen to Bach or Vivaldi.
The same is true of ordinary speech. The vernacular of the lower class was once a plobby sound. Now it’s an imitated one. Historian Will Durant has commented on how the upper class now tries to imitate proletariat speech by using “language that used to be confined to the gutter.” This pattern has seeped into popular entertainment and made it a verbal mudscape of profuse profanity. Yet teenagers don’t see themselves as mimicking the culture of ugliness. They see themselves as mimicking the avant-garde.
Third, to explore their Christian freedom
Imagine a young Christian has started to grasp that Jesus paid it all, that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Eph. 2:8f), that we were saved to freedom, brothers (Gal. 5:13)! They start thinking that this freedom in Christ means that God doesn’t care about fringe moral issues—of course, they reason, foul language is among the fringiest of them all since language is just a social construct and bad words are just linguistic taboos that are ever-changing. They think that with these changes there is a new intellectual openness to foul language such that if we don’t embrace bad words, we might not be taken seriously. Besides, so many young Christians now use foul language. What’s the harm?
The harm is that Christian freedom is not about freedom to sin. Christian freedom doesn’t allow us to neglect righteousness, peace, and joy in favor of adapting to the customs of Canaan. Christian freedom means that by faith in Christ we are free from the guilt of sin (Rom. 8:1), free from the power of sin (1 Cor. 15:56f), and free from the fear of death (1 Cor. 15:55). It is true that by faith in Christ we are free from the law as a way to justification. But freedom ought not to be turned into license (Gal. 5:13-26).
Young Christians often memorize 1 Timothy 4:12, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” There may be great glee in the first part of the verse. In isolation, the opening phrase empowers young people. But when Paul’s instruction is taken on the whole, it implies that young people who don’t set the prescribed standard in speech will be looked down upon.
When you ask questions about what the ordinary use of foul language means, it boils down to rebellion. Cussing is rebellion (Ps. 12), which makes it folly. Wisdom writes her songs and folly writes hers. We need to make it the business of life to be in the grip of the right songs. Young men in particular are told that “the beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight” (Prov. 4:7). In the book of wisdom, we also read this:
“Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you” (Prov. 4:24)
“A worthless person, a wicked man, goes about with crooked speech” (Prov. 6:12)
“The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate” (Prov. 8:13)
When you have the kids around the dinner table, explain the difference between profanity, crudeness, vulgarity, obscenity, and cursing. Have them come up with their own examples. Then ask them how taking the Lord’s name in vain is profane, crude, vulgar, obscene, and curst.
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.
 This is not an essay over whether profanity is permissible or not. If that topic interests you, it is easy to find many articles addressing that topic.
 It is true that in Philippians 3:8 the Apostle Paul used off-color language to shock the Philippians when he said skybalon, which means dung. It is also true that in Galatians 5:12 Paul wished some would emasculate themselves. Ezekiel used obscenities to get people’s attention. Therefore, there are limited contexts in which foul language may be used for effect.
 Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, (Wheaton, ILL: Crossway, 1990), 269.