A Defense of Swearing? Hells ya!


I can remember the first time I heard my very devout Mormon mother swear. I was 7 years old and we had just moved to a new house and were transporting our cat. The second we opened the car door, the cat bolted, never to be heard from again. “Dammit!” my mother shouted, and I was more stunned by her words than I was by the MIA kitty. The expletive communicated so much: her weariness from the move, her desire for a smooth transition, the sadness of losing a dear pet. It signaled a loss of control. Yet at the same time there was such power in her swearing. I tucked that word away and waited six months for the appropriate time to use it myself. At the beach my brother’s friend destroyed my sandcastle and BOOM I let him have it. The word tasted sweet and bitter all at once.

Over the years I’ve sampled my fair share of salty language. I’m not a sailor or a nurse, but I am a believer that there is a time and a place for cursing. Even for Mormons. Maybe especially. Here are 5 instances where I believe cursing can be a productive choice.

  1. Pain relief—A few years ago I read a study that showed that swearing while experiencing pain reduces the discomfort. Swearing activates our brain’s “fight or flight” response, resulting in a surge of adrenaline, which causes an analgesic effect. In short, dropping an F bomb when you drop a hammer on your toe really does make you feel better. But this is not the case for chronic Potty Mouths. If you swear all the time, your brain no longer sees these words as crisis worthy. Maybe this mean that swearing is uber pain relieving for Mormons!
  2. Substitute for physical violence—As a daughter, a sister, and a mom, there have been times where a four-letter word has come to my rescue when I’ve wanted some five-fingered retribution. We all have impulses to thrash and kick and hurt those who make us nuts. Not that words can’t wound, but hurling words instead of punches seems preferable. Letting out a powerful word can relieve the pressure and be suitable non-violent retaliation. If you’ve never faced this choice, good for you. Go be smug somewhere else.
  3. Swearing is Caring—About a month ago a good friend let her kids have it. They were screaming and fighting and she reached her limit and told them they were acting like “little sh*ts.” They all froze in place. The youngest got teary and said, “Mom, you said a BAD word!” and she replied, “Sweetheart, I swear because I care.” They needed to know they had crossed a line. Again, if you use profanity sparingly, then it makes a statement. It stings the virgin ears and can communicate that one demands better behavior. Sometimes swearing is caring.
  4. Control—If you pay attention to when people swear, it’s often in situations where they feel they have lost control. The example of my mother for instance. For me it is often in the car, when a near miss happens. Letting out an expletive seems to help me focus when I panic. There is relief and power in saying certain words. Some research suggests that swearing increases circulation and endorphins which promotes a sense of calm and wellbeing, making us feel less vulnerable.
  5. Humor – Sometimes swearing is just funny. Especially when you don’t expect it. Here’s an example. My friend was watching another friend’s 4 year old. The kid went potty and got poop on his fingers and proceeded to clean them off by scraping them back and forth back and forth across her living room rug. She did her best to clean it but when her rather proper husband got home, the first words out of his mouth were: “Why does this room smell like ass?” Substitute butt or poop and it just doesn’t work. Maybe anus does, but then you’ve traded the power of a swear word with the power of a clinical term. I stick with “ass” for the win.

Am I suggesting that we Mormons go around cursing a blue streak and sound like a character in a Melissa McCarthy movie? Not at all. In general I agree that there is much too much profanity and it ceases to mean anything when used for everything. But for the occasional swearer, are there times and places when the right word can make all the difference? Damn straight.


When do you swear? Do you regret it as a verbal slip up, or embrace it as the spice in your vocabulary soup?

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26 Responses

  1. Julia says:

    This post is bringing happy tears to my eyes. I have a devout mother like yours but my teenage self drove her to swearing. Many times. Bad words. I swear too – usually at my children and sometimes at other things. Thank you for helping me feel ok about that.

  2. Rachel says:

    I think I might have been a bit like the child in number three, because when someone in my family did use profanity sparingly, it made a strong statement that made me surprised, but also feel very scared. I’ve since thought that if that individual would have sworn at other times, including when anger was not the strongest emotion, that it might not have been so frightening for me (but of course it’s hard to say).

    As an adult, I’ve experienced the usefulness of swearing to alleviate pain.

  3. Aimee says:

    A few years ago I was just finishing a long drive as a solo parent with my 3 yo and 4 month old in tow. We were in the last 30 minutes of our drive after having just stopped for a chocolate shake and bathroom break at Wendy’s when my 3 yo announced that he had to use the bathroom again. I told him we were almost home and he could make it. His urgency seemed to wane and soon we were pulling in. When I opened the back door I was greeted by my urine soaked 3 yo who was also covered neck to knees in spilled chocolate shake. With eyes as earnest as a puppy and a sneaking grin as devilish as it was delightful, he looked right at my face and in his toddler boy voice simply said “dammit.” His mastery of the purpose of swearing in that moment was simultaneously one of the lowest and proudest parenting moments of my life.

    Thanks for this side-splittingly funny and also very relatable post, my dear!

  4. Kristin says:

    As a scholar of language, my take on swearing is this: when language is used to do violence to another, it is profane. If it is used in any other situation, it is just a word arbitrarily assigned meaning. So, if I stub my toe and say “s*%t!,” that isn’t profane in my book. However, if I say to someone, “you little s*%t,!” that is doing violence to them and is thus profane/obscene.

  5. Violadiva says:

    My husband and I come from different backgrounds as far as this is concerned. His family members were dairy farmers who dealt with a lot of cow excrement and certain swears were just a humorous part of everyday life.
    I only heard swears from my dad when he was extremely angry, like raging and throwing things angry, so I grew up in great fear of swear words (probably because they were directly associated to being afraid of my dad in those moments.)
    Plus I had a lot of teenage shame about swears because I thought it was against the commandments to curse.
    I don’t think I’ve yet cursed in front of my kids, but between my husband and I, it’s mostly a way for us to have some silly little inside jokes when the kids aren’t listening. These days, talking like a grown up doesn’t get to happen very often.

  6. Nancy Harward says:

    Yes. Like the Word of Wisdom says about meat: swear words should be used sparingly, only in times of winter, or cold, or famine (so to speak); used indiscriminately, they lose power. I don’t employ them often; when I do, it’s usually for emphasis, sometimes for pain relief. I prefer curses because vulgarities are, well, vulgar, and profanities are profane. Taking the Lord’s name in vain crosses a line I prefer not to cross, but I’m not above placing a well-deserved curse.

    The best example of effective, cathartic swearing I’ve ever heard occurred during a bus tour of Europe with BYU Study Abroad. Our group had been particularly looking forward to visiting Amsterdam because our tour director had promised that certain things (which I will not attempt to describe here) would happen once we got there. When those things did not happen, and we realized that the tour director had been lying to us all along, there was an ugly scene and many ill feelings were generated. Attempting to lighten the dark mood that had descended on the group, the tour director got on the bus microphone as we left the city and said, “Isn’t this a great place? Let’s all give a cheer for Amsterdam!”

    There was dead silence for a beat or two, and then someone near the back of the bus stood up and shouted, “Amster, Amster, DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!”

    Forty years later, I am still grateful to that courageous young woman for giving voice to what all of us felt.

  7. Yuv says:

    Mark Twain said it well,

    “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer”

  8. Dava says:

    Love it! I totally agree with you! And I’ve lived it. When I swear I always get a comment of surprise, but not disdain. I get a slight feeling of regret, but it doesn’t last long!

  9. Ziff says:

    Great post, Heather! I particularly like your description of substituting a four-letter word for five-fingered retribution. 🙂

  10. EmilyCC says:

    Awesome! Also, I must confess that I miss the days before my kids could spell when I could quickly spell a swear out loud to my husband.

  11. Stephanie Gordon says:

    I am quite certain you learned some of your most colorful ones from me. Am I proud? Probably.

  12. Patty says:

    The article is great! The comments are just as good!!

  13. Anne says:

    Oh, I do love this, Heather. My very proper, conservative mom used “dammit all to hell” occasionally. It certainly got our attention. She also called us shitepokes. I thought that was just a wry term of endearment. It wasn’t until years later that I came across a definition: “an old reference to a bag of excrement.” It was an oddly appropriate way to describe us hellions.

  14. Caroline says:

    Ha! Totally laughing at this. You’re the best, Heather. I do remember your salty language we we spotted that cheetah in Botswana. That was awesome — made the moment that much more special.

    • Heather says:

      Maybe category 6 should be spontaneous profanity when confronted with African big cats. I even shocked myself.

      • Liz says:

        “#6 – to express awe and excitement over something so incredible that everyday vocabulary just won’t grasp it (like a %#$&?ing leopard!!).”

  15. Tiger says:

    The premise of the OP, that it is okay to let an occasional curse word fly to cope with pressure/stress/pain and other circumstances is flawed. Rubbish. Hogwash. Malarkey. Such justification and rationalization is exactly what I would expect to hear from flatterers and deceivers who do not want to change. Fiddlesticks, I say! Garbage. Load of crock.

    In teaching the higher law, Jesus taught, “Swear not at all…but let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay.”

    Also, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man, but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”

    King Mosiah: “If you do not watch your yourselves…your thoughts…your words and your deeds…ye much perish.”

    Paul stated, “The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity…Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren [and sisters], these things ought not to be.”

    I’m not trying to get on my high horse. Really, I’m not! Don’t believe me? Well, the good news is that in the hierarchy of sins, profanity sits on the lower rung of that totem pole. Unless you are muttering curses under your breath, it’s not exactly a weakness that can be hid from other people, and neither do you need to approach your bishop/branch president for repentance. But consider this: If anyone had reason to curse, it would be Jesus. Imagine dealing with flagrant and blatant imperfection day after day after day with progress around you proceeding with all the speed of a slug. But He didn’t. If He had uttered one curse word– just one–then the whole Plan of Salvation would have failed.

    My point is we can, we must, do better.

  16. Emily U says:

    I love this post! I’m glad I’m not the only one who swears for certain reasons and isn’t sorry about it.

  17. Laurel Lee says:

    Being raised on a ranch with cows to care for, move, etc., I was taught how to swear by a great dad that was sure those cows wouldn’t do what was necessary without a few hells and damns. My mother left swearing to dire occasions, but I have no excuses for using it when I’m angry, which can be more often than it should. I’m a lot better at 65 now, than I was younger, but still working on it. It’s a good thing I avoided some other bad habits, ’cause if they were as hard for me to eliminate as swearing, I’d be in a real pickle.

  18. Melissa says:

    I started swearing as a teen, stopped when I got older (except for a few that slipped out unbidden… it happens!). I started again after having children. Not loudly, or all the time. I was *so* ashamed of myself, like I was totally letting God down. Wow. While I wish I didn’t get to that point of frustration ever, I am convinced it is just a part of parenting. Not to mention all the wonderful hormonal cocktails that go along with making children and being human. I’m grateful for a husband who is totally nonjudgmental on that front, because I have made myself feel awful enough for the both of us. I still don’t love it in myself, but I’ve learned to be more gentle. After all the times I’ve tried to repent/replace it, literally nothing has worked. At this point, I feel fine about that. I have felt God’s approbation in other areas of my life, I think I’m doing OK.

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