Ask RC: What are your thoughts on “minced oaths?”
First a definition for those unfamiliar with the term. A “minced oath” is a bowdlerization of words or phrases otherwise deemed offensive or blasphemous. Common examples would be the substitution of darn for damn, heck for hell, gosh for God. Some argue that when we use these substitutes we nevertheless stand guilty of using the originals, that gosh takes God’s name in vain, and darn belittles the reality and horror of damnation. While I am sympathetic to that perspective, and give thanks for those who seek to be deliberate and to honor God with their tongues, I do not share that conviction.
The ground of my concern with this objection is in an understanding of how language actually works. On the one hand we must steer clear from the notion that words have no meaning, that meaning is imposed on words from the outside, that we can mean what we wish with whatever words we use. This is the post-modern conceit and it is deep folly indeed. On the other hand, however, we would profoundly misunderstand language if we took that view that words are utterly static, immovable soldiers that are completely unfazed and unchanged by how they are used by actual people. That is, usage may not define meaning but it impacts meaning. And usage changes over time.
It may well be two hundred years ago people began to substitute those terms, that when they said, “Darn this dull ax of mine” that they were actually wishing that their ax should suffer eternally, but wanted to say so while maintaining a façade of politeness and respectability. That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that today when someone says, “This darn operating system keeps crashing, “ that they intend to communicate, “I want my operating system to suffer God’s wrath eternally, but I want to say so in a more genteel way.” I suspect that what is intended to be communicated is simply this, “This operating system is frustrating me by crashing all the time.”
Now it is certainly possible for people to have competing meanings for different words. This is why I’m supportive to those who refuse to use “minced oaths.” If they mean by darn what others mean by damn, they should not use the word cavalierly. (How much more on gosh and God?) We should shudder at the thought of eternal torment. The trouble is when those who rightly won’t use minced oaths, because they see such a connection between the substitute and the original term, impose their understanding of the term on their brothers who don’t see such a connection. Some judge their brothers for saying damn when what they really said is, “I’m frustrated,” or, “That’s a disappointment.”
I admire the scrupulosity of those who won’t use minced oaths. I do not admire the judgment of some among them who impose on those who will use minced oaths, not seeing them as minced oaths. Not only should our language be seasoned with grace, but so should our reaction to our brother’s language be seasoned with grace.