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New Harmony: Speaking plainly about 'rascals' and 'shortcomings'

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 5:00 a.m. MST

Mormons, I've come to believe, are masters of the euphemism. We have a gift for substituting agreeable words for coarser words that may offend.

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Mormons, I’ve come to believe, are masters of the euphemism. We have a gift for substituting agreeable words for coarser words that may offend.

I’ve seen it my whole life.

We tend to say “the adversary” because the word “Satan” not only feels dark and foreboding but also makes people squirm. And we don’t want others to feel uncomfortable.

My aunt Jessie was like that. She would never use the word “adultery,” for instance. She always talked about people who “chase.” It somehow softened the punch.

By choosing euphemisms, I think we hope to insulate ourselves against the bad influences of other people the way we insulate our homes against bad weather.

Writer Randall L. Hall once penned a short story about an LDS man who grew weary of the way people soft-peddled sins by calling them “shortcomings” or “faults.” So, in an evening prayer with his wife, he bluntly asked God to forgive him for his sins.

The wife had the bishop on his tail in no time.

There is an upside to using euphemisms, of course. Choosing agreeable words makes us sound less judgmental and helps us get along with others. And, as poet William Stafford pointed out, just as loud noises can damage our hearing, coarse language can damage our sensitivity.

But there is a difference between using profanity and sanitizing the language we use to talk about it.

What's more, I think there are real benefits to being blunt.

In our family, nobody ever spoke about grandpa going to the barn after his chores to drink whiskey. My mother always said he’d “gone for lemonade,” and my grandmother used the code words “feeding the steers.” I think I’d already begun to shave before I realized grandpa didn’t own any steers.

For the record, in our family vocabulary, gramps also “used language.” I’m sure if he’d had the chance, he would have also “followed the ponies.”

The truth is, all those euphemisms often kept the family from facing reality. When I finally did go into the world — as an LDS missionary — being shielded at home left me stunned at the self-destructive behavior of others and, I think, hampered my ability to help and minister.

Using sugar-coated words is, in a way, just another form of denial.

I once heard an LDS seminary teacher refer to Alma's son Corianton in the Book of Mormon as a “rascal” because he “ran” with the wrong kind of women.

The uneasy truth is that young Corianton allowed himself to be seduced by a prostitute. And refusing to say so in plain speech not only minimized the sin but also cheapened the power that rescues and redeems.

In fairness, Mormons aren’t the only ones who shy away from forthright speech. There’s currently a debate among Protestants about removing the line “saved a wretch like me” from the hymn “Amazing Grace” and replacing it with “saved a soul like me.”

The author of the text, John Newton, was a slave trader. He bought and sold human beings for profit. That pretty much defines a “wretch” in my book. And because in Christian circles, if you’re guilty of one sin, you’re guilty, that makes the rest of us wretched as well. Calling ourselves “rascals,” confessing our “shortcomings” and downplaying the suffering we needlessly cause others simply masks our own ugly behavior.

No, the cold, hard facts are these: Gramps was not a “feeder of steers,” he was a boozer. John Newton behaved abominably, and Corianton was not just a “lady’s man.”

And when we discuss their lives in plain, honest language, it not only helps us get past the initial shock of such behavior but also opens the way for us to help those in similar quandaries.

In the end, plain talk not only displays the full sweep of God’s grace but also teaches us that no one — not you, not me — can sink so low that his or her sins are unspeakable, even to God.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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