As four-letter words become an ever more popular form of communication, it's hardly surprising that athletes might use them, or that one might slip out in a TV interview. NBC's Matt Yocum had just asked Dale Earnhardt Jr. how it felt to win a race at the Talladega Superspeedway for the fifth time, and he replied modestly that his famous dad, Dale Earnhardt Sr, had won there ten times. "It don't mean s---," he said.

The sky fell in. Earnhardt was fined $10,000 and docked points, knocking him out of first place in the Nextel Cup series. But what's interesting is Earnhardt's defense of his naughty word.

"It was in jubilation," he said. "When you're happy and joyous about something and it happens, it's different than being angry and cursing in anger. Of course, we don't want to promote that. But if a guy's in Victory Lane, jumping up and down, and lets a 's---' slip out, I don't think that's something we need to go hammering down on."

Is he right? Does it make a difference whether the word is used in anger or exuberance? Does it matter whether it's literal or figurative? Is there a distinction among different types: obscenity, profanity, cursing, and blasphemy?

A word is just a bunch of letters collected into a sound, of course, and can't be inherently bad. Some people, most famously the '60s comedian Lenny Bruce, insisted that no words should be off-limits. "I want to take the covers off. Whatever you do, you should say the words," Bruce said.

That's a little disingenuous, though; Bruce is implying that whenever we use a dirty word, we're using it literally and sincerely, talking about what we "do." When that's the case, a short Anglo-Saxon term obviously isn't more evil than the fancier import, though there may be community consensus that in some settings the topic itself is impolite. In an old joke, the hostess at a formal dinner takes aside the wife of a wealthy rancher and says, "You really must teach your husband not to say 'manure.'" The wife responds, "You have no idea how long it has taken me to teach him to say 'manure.'"

Unlike the rancher, Bruce was intentionally impolite. His satiric brand of comedy aimed at expressing frustration and anger, and he knew that listeners would register the antagonism in his choice of words. An expert witness at his 1964 obscenity trial stated that Bruce's language should be considered acceptable, since it was already in common use to express anger or accusation.

That's what makes a word "dirty." It's anger that turns a word into a "curse word," expressing a hope that someone come to harm. It's ironic that in our sex-obsessed culture so many of these insults are couched as a wish that the person will have a sexual experience. While the topic is a little personal, it's not necessarily an insult to hope somebody will have sex, and you might expect the recipient of such an epithet to respond, "Gee, thanks! I was thinking about doing that!" But of course the deciphered meaning of the insult is "I hope you have an unpleasant sexual experience." This is still not guaranteed to be an effective insult these days, because even the most unpleasant sexual experiences seem to be somebody's favorite.

Article continues below

That thread of anger helps us separate the different effects of "dirty words." It's why a seemingly unrelated category, profanity, has historically been lumped together with obscenity. There was a time when saying damn meant literally "I wish that you would be damned to hell." In a superstitious environment, it might be thought that such wishes had actual power, and that speaking these words aloud would consign a person to hell. If that's thought possible, it would be a matter of public health and safety to teach people to refrain from unintentionally laying real curses on each other in the course of an argument.

A slightly different category is blasphemy, where the name of God is used to give extra punch to a statement. It's not a sincere prayer, which is why it's "in vain," as the commandment says. Obviously, misuse of God's name can't hurt him, because nothing we do can hurt him. Christians believe that God came to earth in human form, was tortured and died, then triumphed and rose again. We can conclude that God is not particularly scared of anything humans can dish out. Blasphemy doesn't hurt him, but it hurts us; it numbs us to his presence, and leads us to gradually substitute an imaginary dummy-god for the real thing. A person who loves God would not be able to use his name "in vain," any more than they could use the name of their lover or child. They would not want this powerful thing, the name of the beloved, rendered common or cheap, because the next step is that it becomes invisible.

This is what's happening to these previously forbidden words; they're losing the ability to shock. It seems strange that Earnhardt's casual obscenity provoked such punishment, when you can't avoid the word in daily life, encountering it on bumper stickers, in movies, and used by nicely-dressed young women out shopping with their children. These words no longer indicate fashionable defiance, but just lack of imagination.

Article continues below

English is unusually rich language, with over half a million words, about five times the size of French. If there's something you want to say, you can probably find a way to say it. Naughty words become a blank token we can stick in any sentence as a substitute for really thinking through what we're trying to say. If Earnhardt hadn't been in the habit of using this word casually, he could have come up with something equally eloquent for the occasion. I'm not particularly offended that he used this word, though I regret that such words are becoming more common while so many thousands of other words get used rarely or not at all. Our vocabulary is becoming more and more narrow, until one day the English spoken in the streets will be reduced to a few grunts and hand gestures.

But Earnhardt is right about this: it's one thing to let a word slip out in a moment of exuberance, and another to use it in anger. If the intention is to convey hatred, contempt or violence, there's a much bigger problem than just that earthy little word. (This is true even when the user is a "rebel" or "artist" and his targets are "squares.") No matter what language you use, self-righteousness and hate should be questioned, not indulged. Count to ten, and if you still feel inclined to unleash your withering scorn, here's a handy four-letter word for you: don't.

Related Elsewhere:

Evangelist Tony Campolo has been known to use Earnhardt's recent jubilant word in a sermon illustration.

Christianity Today Movies has examined profanity in film in a 2001 survey of Christian critics' opinions on the subject, in a more recent explanation of why the site positively reviews some movies with such language, and a follow-up to that article.

Regulating language can sometimes be misguided.

Today's Christian, a Christianity Today sister publication, offers tips for taming your tongue.

Patricia Heaton, of "Everybody Loves Raymond," walked out of the 2003 American Music Awards for "vulgar and disgusting" language from the stage. Gene Veith reflected on this in The Wall Street Journal.

Newspapers weighed in both for and against the NASCAR fine, both sides noting that profanity is commonplace in sports.