Recently, I began a trip in Bozeman, Montana, and traveled to north-central Texas. The geography reflected the vulgarity in those flat plains of Texas when contrasted with the soaring nobility of the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. In hopes of redeeming myself among my Texan friends, I will remind that vulgar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Vulgar” in the classical sense means low or common, like the plains, unrefined, or belonging to the masses. Its opposite is “noble,” which represents something higher in purpose, and in precision and sophistication. The terms are nearly lost to our age because Marxist sensitivities make nobility off-limits in our wider culture. Aspiring to be higher, or noble, is seen as elitist, an attitude which lowers everything.
Thus, our culture is becoming more vulgar. We see it in attire, art, music, and manners.
Our children are implicitly taught to shun nobility. The Bible, however, has a different view. In Philippians 4, Christians are commanded to dwell on arete, the Greek word often translated as “excellence,” but which might be better translated as “noble.” It was reflected this way in the King James:
“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We also see this calling in 2 Peter 1, where we are instructed to “add to our faith, arete.” These familiar verses are often misread because we look through post-Christian glasses that say, “There is no better or worse, just different.” Or, “Every culture is equal; there is no such thing as high culture.” But for nearly all of Christian history, from the first century onward, the church pursued nobility, or higher things, in culture.
Nowhere is the decline in our age more evident than in our language. Language has an odd way of both reflecting and affecting our souls toward the divine (noble) or the base and fleshly (vulgar). Some think vulgarity is just swearing. It’s not.
One ironic example: we seem to try to escape the everyday simplicity of our vulgar age by overusing extreme descriptors to the point of vulgarity. Waiting in line at a store, I recently heard a parent ask, “Are you done?” as their child emerged from the bathroom. “Yes,” said the boy. Mom: “That’s super awesome!”
“Super” now modifies nearly any superlative adjective like “sick” which replaced “awesome” which was a stand-in for “cool.” All three are interchangeable now, unless you want to appear up-to-date, in which case “sick” will serve best. Last I checked. “Those are sick socks” replaced “those are awesome socks” which supplanted “those are cool socks.”
Not sufficiently “sick”? Then add an adverb to overcome a ho-hum superlative like “awesome.” So now we have “super awesome,” “super cool,” and, yes, I’ve even heard “super sick.” Our memories trapped in the twentieth century deceive us into believing common slang has always been like it is now—unsophisticated, low, and used by just about everybody. But one dictionary describes the rise of this vulgar language as “a vernacular that became a primal language for teenagers who sought independence and liberation.” “Gnarly” (‘80s), “dreamy” (‘50s), and “bee’s knees” (‘20s) are all vulgar, and probably a fun and harmless way to communicate at times. The problem is that we now idolize the primal and despise the noble.
Bye the bye, have you, or any of you, thought of working me a pair of slippers for I am fast decaying in that department. I like that plaid pattern or in fact any pattern any young lady pleases to choose for me–providing always it is not too remarkable a one. ~ W.T. Chitty, British Infantry, 1850
Christian culture once aspired to a more sophisticated turn of phrase. Look to the language of a nineteenth century foot soldier or laborer who asked in a letter for a “pleasing” plaid that was not too “remarkable” (see quote above). The quotes I’ve chosen are not from educated erudites, but rather from common people. Their language was not only more meaningful, but it had integrity. It meant what it said. Western civilization was built on Christian ideas that informed our society and its norms. These norms reached purposefully toward perfection in Christ. Every thought was brought captive to this standard, which included more formal height in language.
I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-ﬁeld, it will whisper your name.— Major Sullivan Ballou, July 1, 1861
“No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got… if we are sceptical we shall teach only scepticism to our pupils; if fools, only folly; if vulgar, only vulgarity; if saints, sanctity; if heroes, heroism…” (C.S. Lewis, On the Transmission of Christianity). In this spirit, those of us in the school business need your help. And, we need to pay close attention ourselves.
Obedient and patient, and Solid as a wall are they. All we lack, is a paler hue, and a better acquaintance with the Alphabet. Now Your Excellency, We have done a Soldiers Duty. Why cant we have a Soldiers pay? You caution the Rebel Chieftain, that the United States, knows, no distinction, in her Soldiers: She insists on having all her Soldiers, or whatever, creed or Color, to be treated, according to the usages of War.
— James Henry Gooding, a Black common soldier in the Union Army, in a letter to Abraham Lincoln asking for equal pay. c. 1863
HOW YOU CAN ELEVATE NOBILITY IN YOUR HOME:
- Require that your child complete an age-appropriate crossword puzzle before they get screen time. You can get books of them online. They can use better words only if they know them!
- Watch out for swearing on Youtube, in movies, and in other sources frequented by your children. The frequency of these words, or their cognates, acclimates children to the low. Not all vulgarity is swearing, and not every use of “@#*$” is vulgarity. But swearing when used cavalierly and gratuitously is inappropriately vulgar. The more exposure to great books, the better.
- For parents of older children, correct your children away from surrogate vulgarity, like “frick,” or using acronyms on instagram (OMG). Rather than saying, “That hamburger was fricking good” or even, “That hamburger was super awesome,” stop them, and they may come up with “that hamburger makes even the tomato taste good!”
- Play descriptive word games with your kids. While driving, point to something unusual and go around the car for each student to give it a title. A broken down fence might be titled “Tom Sawyer’s Challenge.” This practices students in better descriptive words.
- Use higher language yourself. For example, when children do a good job cleaning their room, rather than, “This looks super awesome!” try “This room leaves me speechless. Well done.” “Speechless” is likely more accurate than “super awesome,” at least until we increase our own vocabulary!
So why should we coach our kids away from vulgarity, in either sense of the word? Remember, our task is to irrigate deserts. Inside your child is nobility—a reflection of their divine nature. Also, we are flesh. Vulgarity will naturally overcome nobility because that is our nature. But, higher language will help beget a higher life. To thrive, a civilization, and a person, needs nobility. Not “nobility” as in people with aristocratic titles—rather, people who elevate their manners, their dress, their language, and their thought in alignment with higher rather than lower things.
In the next issue, I’ll tackle the influence higher words have on how your child thinks. It may surprise you what a difference your language makes.
David Goodwin is President of The Association of Classical and Christian Schools.