Frankly, My Dear...

Psalm 10:7

I know that there are just some lines that wouldn’t be quite as effective—or as memorable, anyway—without the swearing. I know, because I’ve tried going over the lines in my mind, substituting and rewording as best as I can, and it just doesn’t work, most of the time. Unfortunately, there’s just something about the swear words that can’t be expressed in the same way in everyday Christian vocabulary, and there’s often something in slang that is at least difficult to express by other means. I don’t condone swearing, and (which puts me in a very tiny minority) I don’t approve of slang that mimics it. But, I’m a writer, and I do talk, and there are times when a little extra emphasis would be handy. It just seems to me that I shouldn’t have to resort to oaths, minced or otherwise, to get it.

I said that I don’t condone swearing, but I admit that I understand why people use it—especially writers. Swearing gets people’s attention, and it sets the mood. Why is that Clark Gable line so well-known? (And if you don’t know it, that’s all right. The movie’s overrated, anyhow). We remember it because it got our attention. He could have said something like, “Frankly, my dear, your fate is not worth a small Jamaican coin of negligible value to me,” but, aside from being a little awkward, that wouldn’t have convinced us anywhere near as quickly or as well of the extremity of his position.
It also would have been out of character, and wouldn’t have fit the situation very well. A man of gentility and good breeding wouldn’t have said what he said, and a woman of gentility and good breeding wouldn’t have earned the contempt that brought him to say it. One word, and that a small one, can go a long way toward character and plot development.

People usually turn to slang in order to get the same effect as the real thing, without having to sin in the process. There are two problems with that. The first problem is that the whole point of slang is to get as close to a swear word as possible, without actually saying it. It’s a compromise that slides by on rules that we wouldn’t dare apply to any other sin. And the second problem, which only compounds the first, is that it doesn’t generally work. Substituting slang for cursing in any serious dialogue diminishes its effect by about fifty percent. Using it in a setting that isn’t serious diminishes its effect by something like one hundred percent. George “Gabby” Hayes can say “tarnation” till the cows come home, and most people won’t even notice that he said it.

But, unfortunately, there’s still a dilemma. Taking out the profanity leaves a hole that even slang, if I thought it was an acceptable option, doesn’t fill. Ordinarily, however, we aren’t talking about altering what has already been written and said; we’re talking about how to express the full range of human emotions, preferably in words that are wholesome. Swearing is the easy way to do it. Slang is often an easy way to do it. Frankly, my dear, saying what you mean requires effort, sometimes.
Sometimes, though, the writers among us are not so much concerned with conveying meaning, as with creating atmosphere. Bad guys in real life use unwholesome language at times. Real-life high-tension situations can bring out all kinds of language, even in a group of good guys. Wouldn’t it be silly to try to present a character or scene in which swearing would have occurred, without using realistic vocabulary? Well, yes, if you’re peppering a war-time drama with “gosh” and “darn”. When bad guys aren’t swearing, they aren’t using slang, either. Generally, a writer has two options: he can turn the character’s thoughts into actions, or he can improve his writing skills. A good writer—or director, for that matter—knows or will figure out how to create meaningful, even intense, dialogue that won’t feel like it has holes in it. It’s been done before. It’s also one of the distinguishing marks of a really good writer.
It may also be said that one of the marks of a good speaker—one who has command of the English language and his own use of it—is the ability to react to surprise, anger, disappointment or happiness without resorting to one- or two-word exclamations. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would find that most exclamations of that sort have no literal, relevant meaning. The ones that do tend to have inappropriate meanings, whether we realize it or not. Sometimes it just takes examining the words that come out of our mouths—or are about to—before we can plot a course for reshaping our vocabulary to fit our convictions. If we tend to use minced oaths, we may have to go for a season without using any exclamations at all. If we are more likely to use nonsense phrases, “Nonsense!” makes a logical replacement—if it doesn’t, you mean more than what you’re saying.

There are many people who continue to use slang only because they grew up using it. They probably never thought anything of it. I know many people like that, and while I may be startled by adjectives or exclamations that show up in their conversation, I am unlikely to say anything to them about it. I may not bring it up simply because it is not my place to do so, just as it is not generally my place to reprove people who use stronger language. More often, I overlook it for the same reason I overlook the naiveté of people whose standards of modesty in clothing and deportment are not as high as my own. Language, like modesty, is a matter of the heart. Usually, no offense is meant, and none is taken, because I know that a real love for Christ does not allow habitual, conscious sin to continue without repentance. I know many people who clearly love the Lord who use words that I could not, in good conscience, use myself, but because I know where their heart is, I work all the harder to purge myself from language about which I feel convicted, before I go for the speck of an unintentional misdemeanor.
On the other hand, because the language we use is so closely tied to what is in our hearts, our words of choice can, at times, be a barometer of our attitude and worldview. Flippant use of the name of the Lord is at best an indicator that a flippant attitude lies behind it; at worst, it might point to a flippancy about the Lord, himself. We might say that someone in immodest apparel is at best ignorant, at worst intentional, but, as with language, the effect is the same, and as strangers, we often can’t tell the difference.

All our difficulties with restricting our vocabulary to whatever is just, pure and lovely boil down to this: as fallen human beings, we don’t know how to express ourselves. Sometimes our emotions get the better of us, and we don’t know how to contain them without saying something that goes well with an exclamation point. More often than not, we are so used to the meaning or effect that goes with inappropriate phraseology that everything else feels like it will fall short of precision, let alone efficiency. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing that our minds and tongues and pencils find sin to be the easiest way out. It is or was sin that caused the dilemma, but we all know that two wrongs don’t put you where you ought to be. It may—and in my case, does—at times feel awkward to write something out without turning to a shortcut that most people don’t mind, anyway, but that’s another part of life as a sinful human being—it feels awkward not to sin. Thankfully, however, sanctification is another natural part of life for those of us who are in Christ. Yes, of course we have to work at it, but the more we strive for godliness, the closer we will get. Our efforts are not in vain. One of these days, trying to use only pure language will be a non-issue. In the meantime, we’ll get to be better writers and speakers, anyway. And, frankly, my dear, I would have considered that incentive enough.


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