Watch Your Language!



Watch Your Language!

The coming of the streaming channels to cable television has brought with it broader acceptance of allowable language in the dialogue of the characters in the episodic programming. As a protection to viewers, especially to children, network television—as it has for decades—provides self-regulated standards of language and ratings to indicate possibly offensive dialogue.

And even now, in streamed programming, there are still indications in the opening titling and credits that forthcoming scenes may depict questionable content, especially to minors. One of these, “mild language,” ever seems of questionable meaning. What exactly is of possible concern over language that is mild?

But still, depending on the programming to which one subjects oneself, modern-day profanity occurs regularly in shows, whether they are depicting current or historical society. It makes one wonder why this change of standards seems to have become so universal to the entertainment media.

For centuries—even maybe for millennia—the standards of public expression have disapproved of slang and obscenity. Even in everyday discourse, just between individuals, such language has been discouraged, beginning at the knee of one’s parents. Some such sayings go back to ancient Greek culture.

And more recently, in English-speaking culture at least, the uttering of expletives has been considered at least of less refinement. One of the most recurrent quotations from cultural figures of note is that of Spencer Kendall, an American business, civic, and religious leader of the 20th century: “Profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly.”*

It may be pointed out that “profanity” is often used with various meanings. Probably the oldest of these is traceable back to God’s third commandment from Sinai: “‘You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain’” (Ex. 20:7, NKJV). It should not be overlooked that this third of the Ten Commandments is in double quotes. It is expressed—written in God’s own hand—on the tablets of stone. The root of this standard of right-speaking, then, refers to what may be defined as sacrilege or blasphemy, a direct or indirect reference to one’s belief in God.

But sometime over the millennia since then, probably in most of the post-Babel languages, the expletive has come to include forcibly expressed epithets reflecting other aspects of human life as well. As such, the standard is best expressed by New Testament times in the Epistle of James: “Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation” (5:12, NRSV).

And on this principle, through the centuries since, at least in Western culture infused as it became in Christian belief, the disapproval of profane language has long held a place in thought. Even for those whose belief in biblical history had drifted into other worldviews, slang was considered uncultured, expressions of a “feeble brain.”

And this definition of slang has long been held as a standard of judgment of the quality of others. Throughout all cultures, the use of profanity in whatever its form—from profanity to vulgarity—has been considered somehow less than human refinement, at least.

In recent years, however, slang has become the subject of some interesting study. And some of these closer looks at profanity have suggested that there may actually be positive links for using bad language to health benefits and even to honesty. The expression of an epithet from someone in intense pain, for example, may actually relate to their improved mental state—peace of mind. And other research has noted some connection between swearing and honesty.

And, still further, some research is beginning to suggest that swearing is actually connected positively to intelligence, that smarter people are statistically likelier to be swearers. Those who express themselves in the extreme with expletives draw on a measurably larger vocabulary, and the larger range someone’s vocabulary has long been considered an indication of his or her intelligence.

At least two responses to this theory come at first to mind. The first is that which researchers themselves would bring up. In the interpretation of research, there is often a distinct difference between causation and correlation. The use of slang by those with a higher IQ may simply mean that they have a measurably greater vocabulary to draw on.

And the second response to this apparent connection between offensive language and intelligence occurs in the definition of “intelligence” itself. Does not someone’s smartness include more than mere information? Should not intelligence also measure someone’s judgment—or wisdom? Is what we do surely as much an indication of our intelligence as what we know?

 Whether the biblical King Solomon was the wisest of all time only time in its eternity will show. But for Solomon’s time, at his own personal request “God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. . . . People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom” (1 Kings 4:29, 30, 34, NRSV).

So, it seems to have been that Solomon, the God-blessed, last-ruling king of the united nation of Israel, was considered a kind of precursing Einstein for his time. Leading thinkers of the time made pilgrimages to sit at his feet, as it were, and marvel at his mind. Surely some of them must have come with questions transcending the merely informational.

In what language Solomon expressed what he knew, it is difficult to imagine that it could ever have sunk to the profane or obscene. Yet, may it also be noted that this greatest mind of all time did live out some atrocious behavior. While he will ever be remembered as the wisest of all time, he foolishly broke at least some of God’s express commandments.

Intelligence does not particularly lead to positive, godly behavior. And neither is it a clear indication that someone’s conduct is right. As the old saying goes: You can be too smart for your own good.

Wherever on the IQ scale one finds oneself, that counsel of James continues its timeless wisdom: “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no.” This is simply profound.