Sin—on the Tips of Our Tongues
February 1991

“Sin—on the Tips of Our Tongues,” Ensign, Feb. 1991, 30


on the Tips of Our Tongues

Profane and filthy language will poison minds, drive away the Spirit, and eventually condemn us.

The Lord does not mince words about the words we use. He says “that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.

“For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36–37.)

We are judged by our words every day. Nothing reveals us so intimately as how we use our divine gift of speech. Are we mean, crude, irreverent, thoughtless, smug, self-righteous, pompous? Our tongues will tell. Our language, too, reveals much about our integrity, honesty, kindness, goodness, humility, and decency. Language reveals character.

Modern speech, so frequently debased by profanity and obscenity, says much about the character of our society. Our language environment has been blighted by obscenity and profanity just as real and pernicious as the pollution that fouls our land, water, and air. If vulgarity was at one time confined mainly to the so-called “vulgar” (or common) classes and settings (which I doubt), it certainly is no longer. Gutter language can be heard everywhere—in the locker room, around the boardroom, in the back alley, and in our front yards. Profanity riddles the speech of the educated as well as the ignorant, women and children as well as men.

What Is “Profane” and “Obscene”?

To diagnose and prescribe a cure for this blight, it is useful to define some terms.

Offensive language falls under two broad categories: obscenity and profanity. Obscenity refers to language that is indecent, lewd, and offensive to modesty. It is a close cousin to vulgarity, which means common and thus, by implication, low and coarse. In every language I know of, some words and phrases are considered to be crude, tasteless, and base. Obscenity designates this kind of speech; we aptly call it “dirty.”

Profanity refers to another sort of offensive language. It means, literally, outside (pro) the temple or shrine (fanum). Profane language drags sacred words out of the sanctuary and into the marketplace, making a mockery of holy things. It uses in a thoughtless, sacrilegious, or impious way terms usually graced with sacred significance, thus violating the Lord’s injunction: “That which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care.” (D&C 63:64.) Profanity, a close cousin to blasphemy, describes the kind of speech that is often called “swearing.”

Profanity and obscenity designate “unholy and unclean” practices, respectively. In a deeper sense, obscenity constitutes a kind of profanity, since obscene language often treats sacred, godlike capabilities (such as the power of procreation) in a cheap, irreverent, and unholy way. Both are evil; they deaden our souls and dull our power to feel the Spirit. As the Savior pointed out, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth.” (Matt. 15:11.)

From Sacred to Profane

Profanity is part of a wider modern malady. We live in a world in which a sense of the sacred has been severely eroded. Former ages were powerfully imbued with a sense of sacred time and space. Today, by contrast, what once were “holy days,” like Easter and Sunday, are now “holidays.” What originally were designed as celebrations of foundational events and values for the community (Memorial Day, Presidents’ Day) are now little more than excuses for three-day weekends. Similarly, there is a modern tendency to reduce flags to mere decorative cloth, cemeteries to parks, churches and national monuments to brick and marble. In a world where little is sacred, it is hard to remember, much less to respect, the vital difference between the sacred and the profane.

Yet the Lord has always insisted that his people observe and honor this distinction. “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet,” he commanded Moses, “for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5.) Reverence for the sacred was a precondition for revelation of the Lord’s name: “I AM THAT I AM,” or Jehovah. (See Ex. 3:14.) So sacred is this name that Jews both ancient and modern hold it in the highest reverence. It is almost never pronounced and is rarely even written. Substitute terms were found, such as Adonai (Lord) and El Shaddai (God of the Mountain, or Almighty God), so the divine name might retain its proper dignity, awe, and wonder.

The reverence that the Lord taught Moses for the divine name and for holy ground had little or nothing to do with the intrinsic sanctity of certain Hebrew sounds, nor with the nature of the soil on a mountain in the Sinai. But it had everything to do with teaching Moses, and through him all Israel, to reverence God and those things connected with him.

Such reverence was subsequently written into law; the injunction not to take the name of the Lord in vain became one of the first and most solemn of the Ten Commandments. Today it is the one most often broken. The Lord’s names are profaned upon millions of lips—thoughtlessly pronounced in anger, irritation, and even casual indifference.

His Name—A Special Trust

How can heaven stand to hear the abuse that punctuates our speech? Offensive to God when spoken by anyone, profanity must be particularly grievous when uttered by Latter-day Saints. After all, we are uniquely authorized to invoke the Lord’s name—we bear his name in special trust.

For this reason, the Apostle James expressed deep dismay at the profanity of Church members in his day, protesting that with the tongue “bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after similitude of God . … My brethren,” he exclaims, “these things ought not so to be.” (James 3:9–10.) Christians must not profane on Saturday the very name they invoke on Sunday to bless the sacrament, pray, preach, and worship.

I often thought about James’s counsel when I was an Aaronic Priesthood holder trying to resist the temptation to profane. The temptation to take the Lord’s name in vain was powerful; all of my friends on the football team did it. But I was a priesthood holder. I knew that my prayer at the sacrament table would put the congregation under covenant. I could not—would not—dishonor the Lord.

Since every priesthood holder has a special right to invoke the name of the Lord, he should be particularly concerned about how he takes the Master’s name on his lips. Likewise, every member—man and woman, young and old alike—needs to use the Lord’s name with care. Our spiritual power as members of his Church—indeed, our very salvation—depends on our reverence toward God. We simply must resist the tide of profanity.

How Can We Fight This Evil?

One reason it can be hard for some to control patterns of speech is that we all learn language from our environment. When everyone around us swears or uses vulgarities, it requires extraordinary effort to keep our speech pure.

So what can be done? One solution is to remove oneself from a polluted-language environment. Sometimes it is best to flee evil rather than stand and fight; wars can be won by strategic retreat. Remember, when the Church was young and relatively weak, the Latter-day Saints were instructed to gather out of the world into righteous communities. These communities provided strongholds from which member-missionaries could later reenter the world to help redeem it.

Yet we often cannot readily change where we live or work, nor can most of us, even in the best environment, wholly escape the influence of profanity in a world saturated by mass communications. Another solution, therefore, is to seek out small groups of like-minded people. These microenvironments can form islands of decency within the larger sea of profanity.

Families can be especially powerful in helping us fight profanity. Families set the tone for our lives. They can nourish clear, edifying speech and attach proper, reverent associations to sacred words, even in a profane world.

Friends, roommates, and church groups can also provide enclaves of decency in degenerate speech environments. Everyone needs to find clean-speaking associates to reinforce good language.

Another solution is to alter the environment. Others may want to change, too. Sometimes that means we have to confront others. This takes courage—at times the courage of a prophet. President Kimball once chided a hospital orderly who profaned while wheeling him out of the operating room. Even groggy with the anesthetic, President Kimball implored: “‘Please! Please! That is my Lord whose names you revile.’

“There was a deathly silence, then a subdued voice whispered, ‘I am sorry.’” (Ensign, Feb. 1981, p. 3.)

Similarly, the Prophet Joseph Smith, in terrible majesty, rebuked his foul-mouthed guards in the Liberty Jail. (See Parley P. Pratt, Jr., ed., Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979, pp. 210–11.)

In both cases the offenders were subdued, ashamed, and readied for repentance.

Confrontation can be redemptive, especially if done in love. The language of a whole professional baseball team was improved because a player told his teammates how offended he was by their language. How many times my wife and I wish we had communicated something to let others know how deeply their profane language hurt us! Those who profane are often oblivious to the offense they give believers. The world will never change unless some people speak out, with courage and love, against its profanity and indecency.

However we choose to resist profanity and obscenity, resist them we must. The Lord has advised: “But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matt. 5:37.) He has also told us: “I, the Lord, am not to be mocked in the last days. …

“Wherefore let all men beware how they take my name on their lips.” (D&C 63:58, 61.)

Taking upon ourselves the Lord’s name, with all that means, will save us. Surely we should do all in our power to save it from abuse. By covenant, it is our family name, too. Someday the Lord will require from us an accounting of what we have done with his name—as well as with the divine gift of speech itself. (See Alma 12:14.) May we have cause to sing and shout for joy when our words are judged by The Word.

  • John S. Tanner is an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University and a CTR-A teacher in the Edgemont Twentieth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont Stake.

Photography by Welden Andersen