Changing Language Changes Thinking

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David DePinho
  • 55th Wing chaplain
Recently I learned that there are people who want to do away with the word "History". Since the word has "His" in it, the word is considered to be sexist by these folks. I am not sure what they want to change it to, maybe "Ourstory" or "Oldpeoplestory," but the idea is change the language; change the thinking! On this one at least, the idea seems pretty silly doesn't it?

Overall however, the idea of changing language to change thinking does make sense and it does work. Polite speech generally promotes polite behavior while coarse speech promotes coarse and rude behavior. Speech communicates ideas and we act on the things we think about. I am a Chaplain now, but years ago I served in the Marine Corps and I used to practice very course speech. I was so coarse in fact that other Marines told me my language was foul! Think about that for a bad does your language have to be for Marines to tell you that you talk dirty? So my credentials are well established on each side of the vocabulary debate.

Years later when working to clean up my language, I found it a very hard process. Coarse language is addictive and hard to stop. I enlisted the help of others and asked them to call me out when I spoke inappropriately, and found success overcoming the problem. Why was it so hard to change? Because we form patterns in the way we think through our repeated patterns of language. Since in my youth I put time and imagination into creatively swearing, it took effort to change.

Years later I learned that there are categories of swearwords. Vulgarity is cursing based in bodily functions. Vulgarity would also include sexual activities, things associated with defecation, urination, etc. Profanity on the other hand, is cursing with regard to the divine. Things in the spiritual realm associated with God and heaven etc. For instance, telling someone to "go to hell" would be profanity.

Up until about a hundred years ago, almost all cursing was profanity. It was used to insult, or intensify emotion either positive or negative. Very little vulgarity was used; even very bad men would be shocked to hear much by way of vulgarity a hundred years ago. More common were profane expressions like the old cowboy who might exclaim: "The hell you say" etc. This is profanity because it takes a spiritual thing, hell in this case, and uses it in a derogatory way. Regular use of the "F" word came more recently as profanity lost its shock value.

Now with that short history, what can we do to improve ourselves in this realm? In the movie "Blast From the Past" starring Brendan Fraser, there was a very profound line I didn't expect to hear about language. Brendan Fraser's character was a man who didn't curse. It was so unusual another character asked him why he didn't curse. His answer.., "good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them". We have lost this truth today to a large extent; particularly in that we have lost the understanding that both profanity and vulgarity exhibit bad manners and represent a profound lack of respect to others whether the person is offended or not.

The use of profanity and vulgarity is intended to shock and amplify our speech. They are verbal shouting. The fact that the world has become so loud due to the common use of cursing doesn't change the nature of the beast. We curse more, and are heard less. As a result, collectively, we have forgotten the ancient advice not to add to our words, but simply "Let our "yes" be "yes" and our "no" be "no". A more common and well known saying: "If you want to be taken seriously, talk or walk softly & carry a big stick".

We seem to have forgotten how to talk softly, and as a result, our words carry less weight, not more, when we use so much profanity and vulgarity. This constant failed respect for others can't help but result in a loss of respect and tend to diminish the appreciation others may have for the gravity of what we say. The practice of cursing has become so common people are often even unaware they do it or are hearing it. When I walk along, I hear Airmen use some of the most offensive language and they aren't aware or don't care that I am in earshot and don't want to hear it.

Bottom line, thinking people discount the value and appropriateness of profanity and vulgarity. We realize people who use it injure their credibility with its use. More than this, we see that people who use it demonstrate disrespect for others and influence behavior toward coarseness which removes barriers to inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior. So it is true, if you want to change the culture, change the language. As Airmen, our integrity demands we use our language for positive service to make things better, not worse. In our fight against sexual assault and harassment, let's add to our arsenal the powerful impact of changing our language, and remove both profanity and vulgarity from our conversation both at work and at home.