About Me

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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. My translation of Hildegard's Book of Divine Works is available from Catholic University of America Press here. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

On the Habit of Profligate Swearing

Practically all of us either know or have met someone who engages in the practice of profligate swearing. In their everyday speech, such people can hardly finish half a phrase, let alone a complete sentence, without throwing in the “f-bomb” or one of its many derivatives. It is a “colloquial” style that, though abhorred by many, is often excused as relatively harmless, or worse, as the birthright of a certain class of citizens (in similar fashion is claimed exclusively to black Americans the birthright of using the “n-word” in everyday speech, a use whose proliferation now often rivals that of the “f-word”). It has become such a nuisance that the town of South Pasadena, California, has declared this week to be “No Cussing Week”.

These habits are often claimed to be either a demonstration of modernity freeing itself from the shackles of old-fashioned prudery (by those who excuse it); or again, an example of just how far not only our morals but also our respect for the English language (“the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible,” as Henry Higgins puts it) have fallen—this latter the claim of those who would see such profligacy of basest language banished. Yet, while reading yesterday John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (his spiritual autobiography, published in 1666), I was struck by how modern one of his experiences seemed (paragraphs 26-28):

Now therefore I went on in sin with great greediness of mind, still grudging that I could not be so satisfied with it as I would: this did continue with me about a moneth, or more. But one day, as I was standing at a Neighbours Shop-window, and there cursing and swearing, and playing the Mad-man, after my wonted manner, there sate within the woman of the house, and heard me; who, though she was a very loose and ungodly Wretch, yet protested that I swore and cursed at the most fearful rate, that she was made to tremble to hear me; And told me further, That I was the ungodliest Fellow for swearing that ever she heard in all her life; and that I, by thus doing, was able to spoile all the Youth in a whole Town, if they came but in my company.

At this reproof I was silenced, and put to secret shame; and that too, as I thought, before the God of Heaven: wherefore, while I stood there, and hanging down my head, I wished with all my heart that I might be a little childe again, that my Father might learn me to speak without this wicked way of swearing: for, thought I, I am so accustomed to it, that it is but in vain for me to think of a reformation, for I thought it could never be.

But how it came to pass I know not, I did from this time forward so leave my swearing, that it was a great wonder to my self to observe it; and whereas before I knew not how to speak unless I put an Oath before, and another behind, to make my words have authority, now, I could, without it, speak better, and with more pleasantness then ever I could before: all this while I knew not Jesus Christ, neither did I leave my sports and play.

I am hardly the first person ever to note that one of the qualities of great literature is its ability to endure and remain pertinent to the lives of its readers, even so many centuries after its composition. John Bunyan’s Puritan mindsight might seem, at first glance, so wholly foreign to modernity as to render his writings practically useless to the modern reader; and yet, one stumbles upon a passage like this and is forced but to recall the words of that Preacher some few dozens of centuries ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.”

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