I was thinking about writing on this topic, but had decided not to. Then I read Tim's blog today. It is the teacher in me.
In the September 25, 2000 issue of Newsweek (I'd link, but you have to pay to view it), Anna Quindlen wrote a good column on the nature of cussing. She reminds us of some things related to the nature and history of language and clarifies what are currently the words that are considered inappropriate.
A Brief History
Originally it begins as cursing. These are the words and phrases that you say in order to curse someone. This is sort of a supernatural/magical belief. I assume that none of us believe that saying "Go to hell" to someone will actually curse them (no matter how angrily it is said).
Since the Norman Conquest there has been this battle in the English language between the Anglo-Saxon words and the Romance words (that come from Latin, especially through French influence on the English language). The elites often despised the old Anglo-Saxon words that the common (or vulgar) folk used. The Victorians take this to its furthest point by deciding that these old words for sex and bodily functions are inappropriate. Instead they used the new medical terms or those that came into English from the Romance languages. There is nothing inherently wrong with the word itself, just a cultural construct.
In the late-twentieth century there was another shift. The words that became inappropriate were racial slurs and other euphemisms that truly insult someone because of some group of folk they are a part of. Unlike the old cuss words, these words do cause injury -- it is not just that they sound vulgar (or common).
What Type of Issue is This?
I think the use or non-use of these older curse/cuss words is an issue of prudence, of pragmatics. It is neither a moral nor a religious issue.
Here is how it is a prudential issue. It is not prudent to use words that you and your friends don't find offensive in front of folk that do. Older adults still have issues with certain words that younger folks don't find offensive, but it isn't prudent to use those words in settings where folk might find them offensive or inappropriate. If you saw The Apprentice last week, the losing guy used the F-word in the boardroom. That's just not a prudent place to use that word, even though he probably wasn't intending anything offensive.
But it isn't really a moral issue. A person offended by a certain word needs to provide an ethical argument for why it is morally wrong. It seems that the reason most folk are offended by certain words is simply that they've been conditioned that way. They were taught that the words were "bad words" and so they believe them to be bad words. There's nothing either good or bad about this; it simpy is the acculturation process. But there is nothing inherently "bad" about using the Anglo-Saxon word for sex. Like other words (even "good" words) it can be used in abusive ways or in an abusive tone of voice, but as a word it is nothing special.
It does become a moral issue for minors who have parents who have said that using such words are wrong. The minors are supposed to obey their parents. If there parents don't want them to use certain words, then they should respect their parents wishes.
Nor is this a religious issue. The scripture seems to want us to guard our tongue from gossiping or speaking abusively to one another, but there's nothing about what we call "cussing" in the Bible. Rather, Jesus and Paul both use language considered offensive in the first century. Jesus has choice things to say to the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, "brood of vipers," etc. And Paul uses the word "skubalon" which is often translated "rubbish" but means "human excrement." Actually, it means "shit." That's what the highly esteemed "greatest-Baptist-preacher-in-Oklahoma" Dr. Mack Roark taught us in Greek class would be the proper translation, though he advised not to translate it that way from the pulpit. He said skubalon didn't simpy mean "human excrement" but was in fact a word that was considered offensive to Paul's audience.
I don't think that this issue falls under my purview of youth-minister-qua-youth-minister. All adults who are in the lives of teenagers need to help them learn to navigate the complex waters of adulthood. All adults need to educate teens on learning things like what language is appropriate in what settings. It isn't a ministerial, religious, or moral thing, it is just good pedagogy of the rising generation in the pragmatics of adult life.
Recently I realized that I do not cuss. Sure I use words that my mother considered cuss words (she didn't even like "shoot" or "darn"). But I don't use the words that my generation considers inappropriate -- racial slurs, other negative euphemisms based on demeaning a group of people, etc. When I use those words my Mom didn't like, it isn't because I'm "cussing" it is because I think that those words most effectively carry the weight of meaning that I'm trying to communicate in the moment -- just like every other word I choose to use.