Dust: On Curses and Cussing

Part 1: It’s a Real Fungible Problem!
It was never really my intention to talk about Dust here in the newsletter. It was my intention to use the weekly deadline as a trigger to keep myself working on it, at least a little bit. I tried the same thing with the audio podcasting of Earth several years ago. But the unique difficulty with cutting and pasting snippets of Dust into this newsletter is the fact that it contains what some might consider “vulgar” language.“Cursing” means different things to different people. But any student of language history knows that various words take on “better” or “worse” meanings over time, and eventually may develop into uses that have nothing to do with their original meaning. One example of this is the English word “suck.” When I was young, I was told I shouldn’t use that word because of its sexual connotations. According to its “slang” etymology, however, it would seem it originated with English street urchins who used expressions like “You’ve sucked on a lemon,” or “You should suck on tart,” as an insult to describe circumstances and people that were sour or unfortunate.In any case, the intermingling of languages under the conquest of the Normans over the Saxons on the little islands of Britain has continued on our shores, and has been amplified in its mutative abilities by the internet’s flattening of the world. As a result, while some utterances remain and/or become taboo, others which once were considered “bad” words have become so common that we don’t bat an eye at them. I have a whole theory about this which might bore you to death, so I’ll spare you and just jump to the end:Outside of taking the Name of the true God in vanity, there is no such thing as “swearing.” There is vulgarity and rudeness, but a Christian’s understanding of the latter will depend entirely on the context of the culture in which you dwell. The most disgusting words in the English language, spoken to a meditating monk on the high mountains of Timbuktu, if he doesn’t know English, will not be “bad” words to him. They would be meaningless noises. This is to say that the sounds have no power, and I consider it a true jeopardy to the Faith and a form of superstition when Christians attribute to such sounds more power than they deserve. This includes calling them “bad” when they are merely un-etiquetted. (This is doubly so when our assumptions about etiquette ignore the fact that etiquette also, like language, is largely a matter of context, and that it is, in fact, terribly rude to expect others to submit to your etiquette when you are in their context….si fueris Rōmae.Dust is written with this conviction in mind, and I will dig deeper into it over the next two weeks. Why have some words, that were once considered vulgar, now become commonplace? More importantly, why do many Christians consider restraint from using these words a high point and pinnacle of spiritual maturity? Does this mean we have free license to cuss like sailors?

Part 2: On Christian Piety
I don’t advocate the reckless, nonsensical flinging of F-bombs in every corner of your life. But, I do believe that the distinction between the F-bomb and the Ph-bomb (phooey!) is arbitrary, man-made (mostly by accident), and ultimately bears no relationship to our actual righteousness as Christians. I also wonder about the power of strong language. Some very wise individuals advocate its use in certain circumstances as a tool for breaking down boundaries, pausing conversation and causing others to think twice about the gravity of what has been said. The alternative is the current state of affairs where young Christians are more afraid of saying “crap” (a word that originally meant “chaff”) than they are of missing church, going to a secular college or marrying an unbeliever. Even worse, our own biblical words of gravity are being stripped from us.I recently had a beloved member of my congregation call me out for my one-time use of the phrase “Why in hell….?” from the pulpit. We had a lovely conversation about it, and I love it when my members keep me in check by sharing their thoughts with me. But what struck me most, what I said to her as my justification and what still occupies my mind is that I used the phrase intentionally, with Biblical context in mind, and in order to give direct voice to the full expression of its biblical meaning. I claimed that, without a clear proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “Why in hell would anyone want to come to our to church?” I really meant it. Every word. Yet the G-rated confusion of cursing with potty language prevents not only me, but all Christians from giving voice to this truly necessary truth.Making up cuss words in a fiction novel won’t achieve this on its own. But refusing to acknowledge the growth of “strong language” as a key element of the American dialect is a result I don’t desire to be subject to needlessly.

On Curses and Cussing, Part 3: The Issue with Fracking

Ergo! To avoid wounding sensitive ears while also striving to capture the verve of real language, in writing Dust I am stealing a page from the almost-awesome TV reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

Forget that the show never quite nailed it, even all the way up to its complete inability to reach a satisfactory conclusion for anyone who‘d watched through so many seasons. Just zoom in on the fact: its writers wanted to get away with cussing on prime time TV. They wanted to drop F-bombs left and right, all over the show, and not be called out for it or censored.

So… they cleverly invented a new word that sounded an awful lot like the F-bomb but was not, in fact, the F-bomb. Their brand new F-bomb had a different consonant and a shifted vowel. Just like that, “frak” bombs were dropping left and right through years of space fighting fantasy.

In truth, I considered “frak” to be uncreative, distracting, and boring. It was the onlychange in the language, and so it felt forced. For Dust, I wanted to do more. Curse words are not the only new words in Dust. They are just the ones you might recognize the fastest. I didn’t want to just replace one letter with another, but I wanted to build the vivid experience of a dystopian world truly built on the ruins of thin one, including the ruins of our language.

No matter what two hundred years in the future might bring, it is all but guaranteed that English (if it is spoken) will not be the same as it is now. But many of the same sounds/words will be present, mixed with new meanings, infused and confused with all the ups and downs and pains and joys of the culture that speaks them.

On Curses and Cussing, Part 4:  Meanwhile, back on Caprica. . .

Last time, I talked about how, sadly, Battlestar Galactica’s attempt to create futuristic swearing broke the Fourth Wall. It asserted that after hundreds of years, the only development to the English language was the F-word. Worse, its evolution was a novelty that any grammarian or lover of English would find awkward. It would be very difficult to progress from the F-word to the word “Frak” in any native or natural way. Such a change in use of language would have to be imposed from the outside, as indeed it was, by the producers of the show.

With that in mind, I’ve endeavored in Dust to replace all human emotion, slang and swearing with words that are not our modern words but that serve the same purpose. Much of this is done with spelling and my reflection on the way the extinction of written language would impact how words are heard, repeated and passed forward over time. The details are fascinating to me, though I will admit, they may bore you.

At the end of the day, anybody who desires to write a story for the readers of the present age, or to impact future generations, can’t afford to be precocious with his use of language. If one is to develop a believable dystopian future in which the catastrophic results of human sinfulness are depicted, pretentiousness needs to be put aside. If Christians want to tell meaningful fictional stories that honestly depict both the ongoing struggle for life and the redemptive arch of providence and salvation from truly disastrous lives, then we can’t be preachy about the world’s vocabulary while we do it.

As a result, Dust most definitely involves “cursing” as we define the term today. The main character (without question a psychological projection of myself, as most first novelists must do), will continually make use of common language from the world in which he lives. This is to emphasize the guttural depths of his own sinful condition, the fusion of his personal fears, doubts and passions with a believable character. 

I’m not saying that I personally cuss all the time in my head. I am saying if I wasn’t a Christian, and lived in a world where there were no grammarians, but only weapons and starvation, I most certainly would.

On Curses and Cussing, Part 5:  The Christian Movie Industrial Complex/Echo Chamber

The last couple of weeks of Dust entries may have left you wondering what all this has to do with the Church or our Faith. I have contended that to write a compelling story, your characters need to sound believable in how they think and speak. The genius with Battlestar’s invented cuss word is that everyone understood that it was a stand-in for the F-bomb.

To have hardened space-fighter pilots, stressed-out politicians and soldiers in tense situations with failing equipment depicted with no swearing is not real to life. Such an element would be more fantasy than the spaceships and aliens. As a result, incomplete as the effort was, it enabled a certain liveliness to the dialogue that soon became normative and helpful.

Have you ever considered the way Christian media and movies get such a limited audience in the society we live? First, the production values have been poor, always a semi-generation behind the big budgets. But second, and my main point: when we draw moral lines in the sand which God has not drawn, and stand behind them to wag our fingers through our art, we should expect our stories to be more annoying than entertaining to anyone not already allied with our views. 

A goody two-shoe approach to righteousness, the assumption that taming the tongue means correcting its sounds and avoiding Germanic root words in favor of Latin ones, and the belief that we can teach people to bless while sheltering them from curses, all serve to dilute our voice in the white noise water cooler of the 21st century media climate. Conversely, carefully chosen words, used for full effect, keeping with personalities that are being portrayed, and, consequently, using words God has never actually forbidden, is simply a matter of taking the First Article for what it is, and refusing to confuse potty language with authentic blasphemy.

More to come…