Dirty Boots: Ugly Words for Ugly Thoughts

I’ve given up cussing for Lent. And, I’ll admit, I’m already doing a poor job of it.

Cussing is about the only bad habit I have left. I quit chewing my fingernails a few years ago, after thirty years with my hands in my mouth, and teaching and parenting have caused me to curb other less-attractive predilections, like heavy drinking and outbursts of ill temper. Using foul language, on the other hand, has been one of the few constants in my life. Friends have come and gone, as have jobs and apartments, but there has always been cussing.

The main reason that I know I’ve been cussing for a long time is that I remember being sent to principal’s office in fifth grade because one of my jackass classmates ratted me out for saying some choice words at PE. My mother was called into the conference, and I got the privilege of listing the words I had been saying. (I shortened it considerably for the occasion.) I don’t remember her getting as angry as I thought she would, and with plenty of hindsight, it’s probably because she knew that I learned those words at home and around the neighborhood. I wasn’t pulling them from thin air.

For a long time, I regarded my habit of cussing as something other people could just deal with. If you had asked me, the words weren’t the problem— prudishness was. There was also a small amount of schadenfreude associated with upsetting people, the ones who gasped or got wide-eyed at a well-placed and thoroughly unexpected expletive. All a young man’s pleasures, I’ll give you, but a young man I was.

As I’ve gotten older, and more importantly after I became Catholic, my view on cussing has changed. I haven’t gotten self-righteous about it. What I’m realizing these days is that they’re ugly words for ugly thoughts, and that’s at the root of my current inclination toward diminishing my use of them now. In middle age, as time grows shorter, I don’t want to spend my time with the kinds of thoughts that lead me to say those things.

The problem with quitting cold-turkey is the appeal of cuss words. Some writers and writing teachers will say that the use of a cuss word is a weak substitute for doing the work of finding the right word. I disagree with that, personally: sometimes a cuss word is exactly the right word. If somebody cuts me off in traffic, I don’t think, That inconsiderate guy! Giving up cussing entirely would be so easy . . . if there weren’t people and situations that warrant their use.

During Lent, Catholics are supposed to use the days leading up to Easter to face the evil, darkness, and temptation that burden our lives. Some people give up a favorite pastime or food, which causes them to consciously resist temptation; others add a regimen of prayer or another daily practice that helps them to focus more on God than the world. For me, this Lenten observance is about turning my mind where my faith says it should be: to loving God, my fellow man, and the life He gave me. I may enjoy flinging them about carelessly, but there’s no love in cuss words. And the older I get, the more I’d rather have love in my heart. While anger and cussing have been significant aspects of my life, I’m thinking that maybe I can put a dent in the former by forgoing the latter.

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