Swear Not

I was driving one day and noticed a license plate in front of me that said simply, “I YI YI.”

Where and when did the common language of common folk become so common?

Oh my. Did you ever have something that brought to mind the voice of your father with a phrase he used? All of a sudden, Daddy was right there with me in my car, even though he’s been gone 10 years.

“Aye yi yi” was an expression he often used when irritated, exasperated, upset, or just dumbfounded. For example, with a broken farm implement that turned out to be a nightmare to repair. It was about as close as he came to cussing, unless you counted “jeepers,” his other favorite expression in such a situation.

Now these examples speak to me when I am tempted to allow my language to sag into the gutter or, more likely, the farmyard. Even though Dad worked around and in the excrement of farm animals—indeed, spent many days hauling manure or mucking out the cow barn or pigpens—I don’t remember him resorting to that other familiar four-letter word for such matters that starts with sh-. Which I do use on occasion, I must confess.

We were taught that euphuisms for God, like “gosh,” or “darn” for “damm,” were just as unacceptable as the real word. If we used the word God, it had better be in a prayer or conversation about the holy Creator and omnipotent being of the universe, not when we were angry or as a substitute for “wow,” as I often hear now.

Where and when did the common language of common folk become so common? Perhaps it starts when we’re kids. We try out words to impress or create a reaction or “be cool.” Then they become habit—habits that are hard to break. Years in college dorms or military barracks also often drag down our language.

I’m going to be considered old-fashioned and ancient by bringing up this topic. Particularly when I too am guilty of letting an occasional d-word slip when I’m not referring to an engineering construction that holds water back in a river.


From left: yours truly; oldest sister Nancy; mother Bertha; “little” brother Terry; father Vernon; middle sister “Pert.” While all of us worked on the farm, Terry and Pert were Dad’s main farmhands.

Now, I did not work around my father as closely as my farmhand sister and brother did, who will tell you now that Dad was the toughest boss they ever worked for. But I know what they mean by that. Dad did lose his temper, particularly when things went wrong, and he would, yes, yell at them with “Can’t you get those corn rows straighter?” and “What’d you do, fall asleep out there?” while cultivating. But he truly guarded his tongue very carefully. While it is tough for children to have their father angry with them (and yes, we received corporal punishment but nothing close to a whupping, as some people my age received), they loved and respected him, and now value the “tough boss” training they received along the way.

Why do I bring these things up? As a reminder to, indeed, guard our tongues. Movies (and the novels on which they’re based), music, and modern life have corroded our sensibilities so that words that used to make me flinch no longer have much impact.

There are always alternative words we can use when bad things happen and a word slips out. Now that I’m thinking about it, I know Dad also used expressions like “Jiminy Crickets” and “fiddle-faddle,” and probably others. Euphuisms for other things? Perhaps, but far-fetched enough that I truly don’t think the good Lord or “do not swear” police would call that swearing. I was amused one day as I realized that the little icon that comes up when my slow computer at home fails to load something shows an unsmiley face with the words “Aw, snap!” That would likely be an expression that wouldn’t offend anyone.

I have many good friends who use stronger words, and like I said, my family will tell you they have to pardon my French from time to time. But I think that as an educated culture, we need to pay attention to our language, or else it truly goes to the gutter. Who wants to live in a culture like that?

I hope this brings to mind your own father, mother, or grandparent who perhaps had strong teachings that “All you need to say is simply yes or no,” as it says in Matthew 5:37. In other words, why add stronger words to impress or strengthen your disgust or your comment?

We can’t go wrong by cleaning up our language.


If you have comments, kudos, or want to share what you learned from parents or others on this topic (good or bad), just send to me: MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.