What is Just?

What Counts as Bad Language?

Most of us learn growing up that there is such a thing as bad language and that we shouldn’t use words considered bad.

Now, I believe there is a very good reason people teach children these lessons. And I do indeed believe there is such a thing as bad language.

However, I think we often misunderstand what exactly makes certain words bad. And this misunderstanding causes a lot of problems.

To understand this, let’s consider some other situations when we refer to something as bad.

For instance, we might say that milk has gone bad when it turns sour or moldy. In this case, bad milk (generally speaking) can no longer nourish us and can even make us sick.

Picture courtesy of Unsplash.

Or let’s say someone says, “There’s a bad vibe in this room”. They usually mean that people in the room possess powerful and destructive negative emotions.

(And in fact, research suggests that negative emotions are contagious and that we can catch someone else’s bad emotions, which can harm us.)

As another example, consider when someone says, “That relationship has turned bad”. And they refer to a friendship that has turned toxic, to use a common and popular term.

These instances illustrate something we commonly mean when we use the word bad to describe something.

When we say something is bad, we tend to mean two things. 1) The thing in question no longer serves its purpose. 2) It is now destructive to the people around it.

For instance, bad milk no longer serves its purpose and is destructive to people. And the same is true about bad vibes and relationships.

This common use of the word bad can help us better understand what kind of language is in fact bad language.

Content Warning: I do use a few minor cuss words in the rest of this post—not too many.

Picture by Tomia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We tend to think that bad language refers to cuss words.

And I think the way people use cuss words often does turn them into bad language. But it’s not because the words themselves are bad.

For instance, damn is a common cuss word. Something that is damned is truly evil or destined for condemnation.

And by the way, some things are indeed evil or destined for condemnation.

For instance, it would be completely accurate to call racist lies, “Damned racist lies”. That’s because they are in fact evil and destined for condemnation.

Or, as another example, let’s say a dog relieved himself in my yard. And I said, “There appears to be a pile of dog shit in my yard.” That would be an accurate use of a word typically deemed a cuss word.

So, sometimes we use a word typically deemed a cuss word to describe a situation that matches the definition of the word. The word is not bad in that context.

And by the way, sometimes we use cuss words in a moment of exaggeration, and we do so for playful and comedic effect.

For instance, the other day, I discovered that the rabbits in my back yard had eaten my newly planted kale and cabbage plants.

And I pronounced to my husband, “Those damned rabbits ate my plants.” In truth, I love the rabbits in my back yard.

Picture courtesy of my husband.

And I know they need to eat, too. But in the moment they ate my plants, they were evil rabbits destroying valuable crops.

Calling them damned was certainly exaggeration. But it safely relieved my frustration at them for destroying my plants.

I’m back to loving them again. And I also will build a fence around my crops from now on.

Sometimes we use cuss words in a comedic manner to relieve stress. And we can even use them to compliment people.

For instance, I love the word kick-ass when used as a compliment.

Many folks would consider the word ass, referring to a person’s buttocks, as a mildly bad word.

However, people also often use that word to compliment someone, like when they say, “You are a kick-ass soccer player” or “You’re a kick-ass life warrior!”

For instance, my mom has been in a wheelchair for fifty years because of a spinal injury suffered during a car crash. She is a really determined, active woman, despite this.

A while ago, someone referred to her as kick-ass. This is probably the most accurate and excellent use of that word I have heard for a long time.

So sometimes we use words usually considered bad language to compliment people. In these cases, such words are good. And sometimes we use such words to make a powerful rhetorical (speaking) point.

Here’s an example of someone using a cuss word to make a powerful rhetorical point. A Christian theologian named Tony Campolo was once speaking at a Christian college. [1] Campolo has dedicated his life to eradicating poverty, racism, and other social ills.

He started his talk by saying,

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.

Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Of course, Campolo’s cussing highlights the irony of caring about the possible moral evil of cuss words more than the certain moral evil of children starving to death.

The use of cuss words in a context like this can be an example of what Christian theologian Walter Brueggeman calls the prophetic imagination.

I highly recommend the book Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann. You can find it at your local bookstore or here on Amazon.

Author Krista Tippett writing about Brueggemann notes that the prophetic imagination helps us re-imagine the “big picture of what is at stake, so that we can take in the reality of our moment in a new way, with a new sense of what might be possible.”

In such cases, words typically deemed strong language (like Campolo’s use of strong language) can break through our mental fog and help us better see reality.

So, the purpose of words is to help us accurately describe the world around us so that we can form loving and effective relationships. These are relationships with ourselves, each other, and the world.  

And if we consider this purpose of words, we can better understand the nature of bad words.

Bad words are those that inaccurately describe the world around us. And furthermore, because bad words describe the world inaccurately, they undermine our ability to form loving and effective relationships.

For example, when we use any words to degrade other people  or mock them, these words become bad words because they are an inaccurate reflection of human dignity. And they undermine positive relationships and cloud our thinking.

In fact, all bad words fog our thinking

Photo by Annie Spratt, courtesy of Unsplash.

Now, of course, sometimes people use bad words innocently. For instance, people may use words inaccurately because they don’t truly understand the meaning of the words.

Or it’s because they haven’t carefully thought through the way they use words in various contexts.

Such words are still bad words in the way I have defined bad words. That’s because, despite innocent intent, such words still confuse our understanding.

Nevertheless, when people use bad words from ignorance, they likely will fix the problem themselves when they learn their words do not accurately represent reality.

The real problem lies with people who use bad words thoughtlessly or with the intent to deceive.

In this case, people are less likely to fix their bad language because they refuse to think about words carefully or because they use words selfishly to deceive, mislead, and to serve their own private agenda.

This is a much more serious problem.

Let me illustrate this with two examples that inspired this post.

The First Example

In the last few years, I have grown concerned with how often people use bad language (the way I have defined it) in politics. I don’t speak here of cuss words, although sometimes that is a problem.

Rather, I am concerned about the way in which people use words–especially powerful words–incorrectly, often in order to mislead or deceive people.

For example, in the last year or so, some folks have taken to criticizing ideas they believe are woke. In doing so, they use the word woke to mean “stupid, silly, dangerous.”

This is bad language.

The word woke means awakened and enlightened. (You can read more about this here: Should You Get Woke?)

As such, we should praise people for waking up or finding enlightenment. Now we might debate whether someone has in fact awakened or found enlightenment.

Picture by Omkar Jadhav, courtesy of Unsplash.

But in that case, we shouldn’t criticize wokeness. We should criticize a misunderstanding of what it means to awaken.

Now sometimes people criticize wokeness because they don’t understand the actual meaning of the word.

But in  many instances in which people criticize wokeness, they use bad language to confuse and mislead people.

For instance, they use the term woke mockingly to dismiss opponents without earnestly addressing their arguments.

In this case, people use the word woke as an ad hominem attack. That’s a type of logical fallacy or poor logical argument. You can read more about this here: The Ad Hominem Fallacy.

Another Example

As another example, I have grown concerned over people’s careless and misleading use of the word fascist.

Now, fascism is a real thing and a real problem. It is a dangerous political philosophy that has some of these common characteristics.

One–Fascist leaders are critical of democracy. As such, they try to disrupt elections and other democratic processes.

Two—Fascist leaders glorify the military and use it to consolidate their own power.  

Three—Fascist leaders glorify their nation as the best and often disparage people from other races they deem inferior. They often promote racial purity in their country.

Four—Fascist leaders believe individuals exist to serve state. As such, they care little about people’s rights and often imprison or kill people they believe interfere with their agenda. (Or they try to do so.)

You can read about fascism in general, as well as Hitler and Mussolini (two recent and well-known fascist leaders) here:



Benito Mussolini

It’s important to note that just because a leader has one of the above traits doesn’t mean he is a fascist necessarily, although he  might be.

But the more of these traits a leader demonstrates, the more he governs his country like fascist leaders throughout history.

Fascism is certainly a real threat that all of us should take seriously.

And if we take fascism seriously, we should use the word fascist very carefully. So, for example, we should only call someone a fascist if they clearly engage in frequent actions that share common characteristics with fascist leaders.

So, for example, a leader would possess fascist tendencies if he tried to overturn elections and interfere with democratic processes. And he would demonstrate fascist tendencies if he promoted his country as the best country and demeaned people of races different from his own.

“Students voting in Fall Elections, University of Texas at Arlington”, photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

However, if a leader who did all these things called other people fascists for holding him accountable for these actions, that would certainly be an instance of bad language.

And it is also dangerous language. A leader who uses such bad language certainly uses it to deceive people. And this type of thing is going on a lot right now.

It is not too surprising to me that a leader would do such things. It is surprising to me, however, that so many people think that it’s a normal and acceptable way to use language.

And that’s why I write this post.

The Point

Bad language is certainly a problem, but we often misunderstand what bad language is.

And if we misunderstand what bad language is, we focus on dog shit in our yard but miss the children starving and the fascist behavior in our streets.


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[1] Tony Campolo spoke at the college my husband and I attended. We think he said this when he spoke at our college. But we can’t decide if we remember it from his address we attended or if we read about it in one of his books.

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