On my walk through the mall on the way back from the supermarket I was shocked. For a moment I wondered whether I had heard right. Perhaps my hearing is getting worse than I thought. But no! The words were repeated.

I have to say that I don’t get shocked easily about “foul language”. Some years ago the schoolteacher of the student that I mentor in our Kids’ Hope program felt that she had to explain to me why my student was not at school that day. She told me he had been suspended for using some very colourful language with a relief teacher. She felt I needed to know what he had actually said but she was a little coy and hesitant about it. Finally she got it out and gave a bit of an embarrassed grin. I talked with her for some time and in the ensuing conversation it came out that I was actually a pastor at the church that ran the Kids’ Hope program. She said, “Oh no! And I just told you those horrible words that this lad used!”

I put her at ease by telling her that I had worked for five years in a factory that employed three-hundred men and that during those years I had heard far worse. That reality is that in that factory we had some very foul-mouthed guys who gave swearing and profanity a whole new meaning. They had turned bad language into an art form.

So what shocked me in the shopping mall? I had just walked past two ladies and a child. My guess was that the child had not yet graduated from primary school. I would have put her at about 11 or 12 years of age. But the language from her mouth was that of a seasoned sailor. When she repeated her comment about “the blankety-blank thing” there was no rebuke from the ladies – one of whom I assumed was the mother.

It was interesting that a few days later I read an article in an on-line newspaper that was entitled, “Why I let my children swear.” The author pointed out that in her opinion there were more important things for her to police as a mother then the language used by her kids. Although – tellingly – she qualified her view by saying that this was only at home. In public she expected a higher standard from them.

At this point I should probably pause and define what swearing is. Strictly speaking swearing is not when we use the S-word for excrement, as an exclamation. It’s strictly speaking not even the worse words that I wouldn’t even allude to in this blog. Swearing is when we take an oath. Used positively it is calling on the Lord to witness to the truthfulness of my words. Swearing is done in law courts and at “swearing-in ceremonies”. But on that basis we also call the wrong use of God’s name, swearing. To swear is to blaspheme. Taking God’s name in vain is swearing. What the world around us calls “swearing” is really just bad language. Does that make it okay? Of course not!

So why should I be shocked when a 12-year-old lets fly with what are generally called “swear words”? First of all because it tells me something of the poverty of language – not only on the part of this child but also on the part of the mother who failed to rebuke her. People who need to punctuate their sentences with colourful language have not really learned to speak well.

More importantly I was shocked because this incident tells me something about the society in which I live. When a 12-year-old is allowed to use the kind of language in public that one normally only hears on the factory floor and among the workers on the building site then in my book society is showing evidence of deterioration.

It often struck me that some of the men whose language was the grossest could turn off their swearing in the presence of ladies. I don’t know whether that still happens but in the factory we had a man who could ingeniously split words in half in order to fit in a swear word – but when he went to office where girls were present as typists and clerks, not a bad word would escape his lips.

All of this is particularly relevant to us as Christians. Okay, Christians do not swear. Blasphemy is offensive to us. But some of us are not too careful about some other words that we use. The apostle Paul reminds us that our conversation should always be full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col.4:6). May the salt purify our conversation of that which is not appropriate for God’s people.