Of Curses and Euphemisms

One of this writer’s seminary professors covered euphemisms as part of his lecture on the Third Commandment.1 The commandment states, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”(Ex 20:7, ESV)

The professor argued certain words or phrases were adopted over time as euphemisms for God’s name. He further argued these terms were used as a way to circumvent the commandment.  Therefore, when one uses the word gosh as a cry of surprise, dismay, wonder or whatever, one is taking the Lord’s name in vain.

AnOldSinner does not necessarily disagree with the professor’s argument that some words became euphemisms for the word god over time. There seems to be ample evidence to believe many phrases used to express surprise, shock, revulsion or outrage may at times be used by people as a way to avoid directly referring to the God of Abraham. With that said, the question becomes, is every use of such terms taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Clearly, many phrases or terms have been adopted by those who would like to make a point without using words other people feel are crude at best. The word shoot was a common euphemism when AnOldSinner was younger. One could hear, “Well, shoot,” or “Oh, shoot” in classrooms locker rooms, and just about anywhere else one might be. Today, the use of the word shoot in this way has declined.  In this modern, oh so enlightened age, people simply use the word it once replaced.

That does not mean euphemisms have disappeared. Freaking or frigging are common euphemisms in the modern world for a word the comedian Lenny Bruce shocked audiences with during the 1950s and 60s. Of course, their popularity is waning as what was once called vulgar or obscene language becomes more and more mainstream.

The problem this writer has with the professor’s argument is that it seems a bit legalistic. That is, it seems to have no gray area. For instance, as the professor sees it, the good old southern term, “Oh! My goodness gracious!” is the same as exclaiming “Oh! My God!” As AnOldSinner understood it, the professor considered both as taking the Lord’s name in vain.

To a point, AnOldSinner can agree with the professor. Every source found on the euphemisms commonly used in this manner agrees on their origin.  The terms were coined or coopted so the speaker could express a thought such as this without actually using words such as god, lord, creator, or father. The problem this writer has with the professor’s argument was it seemed very dogmatic.  There was no gray area.

A review of commentaries and other sources on the meaning of this commandment indicates things are not as clear cut as the professor’s argument would make them. Certainly, the commandment is clear. One is not to take the Lord’s name in vain, and if one does, God will punish that person in some manner. Still, it is not clear that all uses of a term, word or name used to refer to God outside of worship, prayer or educational settings are a violation of the commandment.

The sources this writer studied in the past and reviewed for this piece start with the most basic meaning of the concept of taking the Lord’s name in vain. Everyone seems to agree swearing in God’s name untruthfully, cursing someone in God’s name, or other ways of using His name that misrepresent Him or tarnishes His image is a sin. Beyond these concepts, there is a bit of disagreement.

Some theologians do believe the commandment should be considered in broad terms, but one must wonder if someone saying my gosh or my goodness should be lumped together with blasphemers and pagans.   If that is the case, someone crying out “My God, this cannot be happening” might be sinning.  That is certainly the impression one might get from the professor’s lecture.

This writer would think it is totally appropriate to ask God to hear a prayer or plea. If not, David might be committing a sin in Psalm 17:1 which says in part, “Hear a just cause, O LORD; attend to my cry! …” (ESV) Certainly, this is not exactly the same language as, “My God, this cannot be happening.”  Still, without context, both might be considered a cry to be heard, or a misuse of the Lord’s name.  Luckily, the remainder of the verse clarifies the situation.  The verse ends with the phrase  “…. from lips free of deceit!”

The Psalmist seems to be saying it is okay to cry out to God in this manner under the right circumstances. On the other hand, if one is lying or attempting to deceive this would likely be a problem. Examples of this might be if one is a false prophet, or is crying out in this manner in an attempt to impress others, as in the case of the Pharisees.

To AnOldSinner asking God to damn someone in anger and crying out one of His names in a different moment of emotion are not the same.  The first action, regardless of how one phrases it, seems to be demonstrably wrong for a Christian.  The other action might be more like the cry in Psalm 17:1.

I do not know if the professor in question is 1oo percent correct in his understanding of euphemisms as they relate to the commandment.  He may well be, and I may be bordering on blasphemy.  If I am, I will be judged accordingly.  Still, I find it hard to believe that the kid I was many decades ago sinned everytime he said, good god, golly gee, gosh almighty, and any number of other words one might feel were attempts to circumvent the commandment. Those were just phrases of puzzlement, amazement, befuddlement, and wonder.

With that said, I try not to use those phrases today. I fully agree with a completely secular reason the professor gave for dropping the terms from one’s vocabulary.  There are words in the English language that will express those emotions, much more succinctly or colorfully if one simply expands his or her vocabulary.


  1.  In some Christian traditions this is the Second Commandment.

© AnOldSinner -2017

 

 

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