Is Profanity Unclean?

As a native New Yorker, profanity is my first language.  In New York, profane language is not considered sin or evil, but is simply a way of exclamating your comments.  It lets people know you feel strongly about something.

Having lived for many years in exile from New York, in Arizona, Ohio, Illinois, Connecticut, and Florida, I became accustomed to the linguistic customs of people outside of New York.  Memories of profanity faded over the years.  In 1990, I returned to New York, with my “clean” vocabulary, and found people were not taking me seriously.  After a while, profanity began to creep back into my usage, and I was shocked to discover that people now took me seriously.  Speaking my native tongue made me a more effective communicator.

A problem arose when I would speak with people outside of the New York Metropolitan area.  I could see them cringe when I spoke in the New York vernacular.  The language was too strong for some of them.  I toned down my language by using secondary “bad words” instead of the powerful ones and that helped a bit, but they were still uncomfortable.  After living for more than a decade in New York City, I decided to retain my native speech, but use it moderately.  It made my language colorful, but no one got hurt.

The issue raised by self-righteous detractors, is that my speech is not clean, and therefore, anything I have to say is tainted.  When I consider this, I come to a completely different conclusion for several reasons.  First, the Apostle Paul, in one of his epistles uses profanity that would make a New Yorker feel at home.   You can’t really find it in an English translation, but it’s in the Greek Text.  If the Apostle’s words are not tainted, I must conclude mine are not either.

Secondly, my words have no real victims.  No one is genuinely hurt by them.  When people who don’t use profanity speak badly of others, talk behind their backs, spread lies and rumors, and call someone else’s reputation into question, they are committing Lashon Horah, the sin of speaking evil of others and they are doing real harm.  They may not use profanity, but they have committed character assassination, and damaged another person’s reputation.  Why is it that we condemn the profanity of language that harms no one, yet say nothing of the real profanity that hurts others?  I am sick and tired of people who think they are righteous because they use “nice” language but behave badly to others.  They are only fooling themselves.  They are as unclean as open graves.  They think that by condemning foul language they can hide their miserable behavior toward others.

What does the scripture mean when it tells us to be clean?  Words like purity, holiness, and cleanliness come to mind.  The word for clean or pure most often used is Tahor, which means purity.  This is used in Psalm 51 where King David says, “Create in me a clean heart, Oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  The scripture is concerned with a clean heart, having clean motives toward others.  The Scripture is not so concerned about “cosmetic” cleanliness as much as cleanliness of life; our actions and attitudes toward others.  This is a truth that ever New Yorker understands.  No one is fazed by obscene language, but they understand kindness toward others.  This became apparent to the world in the aftermath of 9/11.  New Yorkers have long been legendary for their outer harshness, yet in the crisis, people reached out to one another, even though they were total strangers.  The hearts of New Yorkers were revealed to the world.  It has been my experience that the main difference between New Yorkers and the rest of Americans, is that in the rest of the country, people want to be friendly and smile, but they don’t really want to be your friends.  They won’t go out of their way for you.  New Yorkers tend to be more grumpy on the exterior, but the friendships and genuine and more lasting.  I’ve known many New Yorkers who would walk two blocks out of their way to help a stranger find their destination.  In my mind the real profanity is smiling at people while speaking badly behind their backs.

If someone objects to my language, speaking in my native tongue, “that’s too damn bad.”  To put it in a way the rest of you can understand, sorry, no offense intended.


14 thoughts on “Is Profanity Unclean?

  1. Being a native New Yorker and living in Lincoln, NE, I can so relate to what you are saying. Although I have made it a habit to never use “profanity” in its truest sense I had to tone down my speech so much after leaving the city. I am so glad that you also pointed out the true nature of New Yorkers and pointed out the bluff of those who smile on the outside but don’t really want to be your friend. Because of my background I am very loyal in my friendships and yet I have so much difficulty finding that same commitment outside of the City. Maybe through your post people might begin to understand what New York is like but I wouldn’t hold my breath. We are a different breed altogether.

  2. Thought provoking.
    With the measure we judge others, we also will be judged by the father.
    While I believe in showing grace to others who do use stronger language, I would honor my mother by choosing to avoid it.
    G*d is not the name of our heavenly father so I don’t see sin there.
    Still I would rather learn a new more widely accepted vocabulary word than accidently offend my mother. It was hard enough to change my thinking patterns the first time.

    • I think you have a good attitude to the issue. Its not a question of sin.. but of honoring those who came before us. The Torah does say we are not to move the ancient boundaries, and I don’t think it only refers to real estate.

  3. I love this article. I agree people put too much focus on the cover of the book and forget the rotting with in. Like Rav Shaul says I’m all things to all people but a NEW YORKER AT HEART

  4. I think that whether a coarse language offends depends on the person from whom it issues. I have friends who are tend to sprinkle their speech with colorful words, but because they happen to be good and kind people that others want be around, and because they are self-deprecating and don’t take themselves too seriously, their coarse words instead of offending, as one would expect, actually tend to have the opposite effect – they tend to endear them to others because people prefer real human being without the facade!

    On the other hand, if a person is already a nasty individual who only looks out for himself and could care less if others are actually offended by what they say, their speech littered with offensive word only reinforces their nastiness in the eyes of others.

    Also, sometimes one, anyone really, needs to employ a nice juicy word to truly express certain things.

  5. My husband is a police officer. For the first several years of duty, he kept his vocabulary really clean. He even felt proud of himself that he didn’t curse. When he was transferred from the streets to the jail, he quickly realized there was a whole other “community” in there that didn’t speak his language and, therefore, found himself quickly becoming manipulated at every turn. Out of necessity, he “dirtied” up his language a little and was able to do his job very well. In the jail and out on the streets, if you’re doing your job well, it basically means you and your fellow officers are going to better your chances of surviving another day. When he is off duty, he does not curse. Our 13 year old daughter has never and will never hear a word like this come from his mouth, but those inmates in the jail surely will hear them and, oddly enough, they respect him for it.

  6. So let me understand, you’re saying your native language is “profanity??” Wow, I’ll have to rethink rolling my eyes at my folks’ recognition of “Ebonics.” I’m jus sayin 😉

  7. I recall only one command that directly affects language, and that is the command not to use the name of HaShem lightly. I do not do that, and I don’t think much of people who do. I think Gene’s comments are most appropriate. We need to know the speaker, before we judge his language.

  8. Dr. Schiffman,

    The bit about Paul using profanity – do you mean the bits in Galatians? Can you be specific? A religious friend on Google Plus challenged me, saying you didn’t specify a verse, implying you made it up.

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