Taming the Tongue: 10 Fatal Abuses of Speech

Saint James warns us that we should be slow to speak and quick to listen. The Imitationof Christ asserts that few have ever regretted refraining from speaking. On the other hand, many regret having opened their mouths when they should have kept them shut. Still more, Jesus warns us that every word that comes forth from our mouth we will be judged; and Jesus says: “From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”

Finally, St. Bonaventure asserts that we should open our mouths in three occasions: to praise God, to accuse ourselves and finally, to edify others. Hopefully this will be our criteria for speaking! The primary purpose for this gift of speech that God has given to the human person is to communicate the truth with love.

We would then like to briefly go over the ten fatal flaws that result from improper speech. In each instance, our goal is to find the preventive medicine rather than curative. The reason being is that once a word has been issued forth from the mouth, it cannot be retrieved. Much like when a rock is launched in the direction of a window pane, it cannot be returned to the hand but it instead goes out and shatters the glass in nearly an instant. So when it comes to taming the tongue, it is far better to prevent the stones of our words then to try to repair the damage.

1. Lying 

Lies should be avoided at all costs. A lie perverts the proper end and purpose of human speech, by falsifying the truth that ought to be spoken. If all were to lie then human solidarity and unity would be impossible because nobody could trust anybody’s word and we would then always be living with the suspicion that the other who speaks is deceiving.  Jesus said that the devil is the father of lies. Therefore, in a very real sense liars are sons and daughter of the devil! A strong statement, but true.

2. Telling White Lies 

Many will justify the lie by saying that it is only a white lie, an inoffensive lie, that nobody will be hurt, or even that the white lie was said to avoid doing harm to the other person. There was a moment when Charlie Brown told Lucy that what he told was only a white lie. Lucy responded:  “Charlie, I did not know that lies come in colors.” In sum, your speech should always communicate the truth in the big as well as in the small things. Jesus reminds us that those who are faithful in the small will be faithful in the large.

3. Shouting and Yelling

Frustrated people who have little self-control often have recourse to yelling or shouting, with the hope of moving the listeners to action; this might also be the case of parents with their children. The end is to get those subject to the shouting to submit in obedience, which rarely results as planned. On the contrary, people will pay even less attention to the overly-emotional and uncontrolled shouting. Rather than losing control of our emotions, it is far better to give fraternal correction but with calmness and peace. In this way you show love, even while giving parental or fraternal correction, while also maintaining control over your tongue.

4. Slander or Calumny

At all costs, we should strive to maintain and defend not only our own good reputation but also the reputation of others. All have a right to the defense of their good name. But how quickly somebody’s good name can be undone by the slander of another! Therefore, calumny or slander can be defined as “character assassination”—that is to say, killing the good name of another.

Actually, in this light, slander not only violates The Eight Commandment—”Thou shall not bear false witness against his neighbor”—but it can also be seen as a violation of The Fifth Commandment:  “Thou shalt not kill.” Even The Book of Proverbs tells us the harm that is done by slander or calumny: “A man who bears false witness against his neighbor is like a war club, or a sword, or a sharp arrow.”

5. Speaking Gossip

All too prevalent in our modern society are those who have become the gossiper. Such a person always finds the negative act and motivations in the other person and then speaks about that behind their back.

Gossipers cause damage in many ways:

  • They hurt God, the source of truth who hears all things.
  • They hurt themselves by sinning by their speech.
  • They hurt the persons listening to their gossip.
  • Finally, and most obviously, they hurt the person against whom they are gossiping.

If you are a gossiper, or you even listen to gossip, stop right now! The Holy Bible is clear about avoiding this: “Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people,” (Leviticus 19:16). Remember, Jesus says that every careless word that comes from your mouth you will be judged. Be prepared for judgment day!

6. Sarcasm in Speech

Sarcasm is using irony and mockery to show contempt. Utilizing sarcasm wounds charity; it is like adding salt to the opened wound. It hurts, burns and smarts!  The sarcastic person belittles, disparages and pokes fun at others, gets the listeners to laugh and degrades others and their innate dignity.

Before giving in to sarcasm, apply the Golden Rule. How would you like it if you were to be the butt of a sarcastic joke? Do to others what you want them to do to you. So speak to other and about them as you would like to spoken to and about.

7. Breaking Confidence

If what you have heard is meant to be kept in confidence, not revealed, or to be kept secret, then it’s best to keep your mouth shut and sealed.

Priests must maintain the seal of the confessional. Professionals are obliged to maintain confidence in many cases. In this case, the common proverb, silence is golden, is indeed is very true. Therefore, in taming the tongue to prevent this fatal flaw, we sometimes we are obliged to simply remain silent. In this, we have a very eloquent silence indeed!

8. Blasphemy

Of the utmost serious flaw of the tongue is that of blasphemy. What then is blasphemy?  In Father John Hardon’s Pocket Catholic Dictionary we read:

“BLASPHEMY: Speaking against God in a contemptuous, scornful, or abusive manner. Included under blasphemy are offenses committed by thought, word or action, serious contemptuous ridicule of the saints, sacred objects, or of persons consecrated to God is also blasphemous because God is indirectly attacked. Blasphemy is a grave violation of charity against God. Its gravity may be judged by capital punishment in the Old Testament, severe penalties in the Church, and in many cases also of the State.”

A concrete and recent example of this was the abuse and the desecration of a statue of  the Blessed Virgin Mary by pouring fake blood over the statue on Christmas Eve in Oklahoma. Through this act, the Church was mocked and Our Lord’s mother was attacked. May God have mercy on us!

9. Abusive and Vulgar Language

While not as serious as blasphemy, a great abuse of the tongue is the all-too prevalent proliferation of vulgar language. Often words are used to degrade the human person as well as the intimate act that God has designed for the procreation of new human beings. This is wrong and should be brought to a screeching halt for those who are in the habit of using such ugly and indecent language.

We should never forget that we are temples of the Holy Spirit. As Catholics, our tongues partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus whenever we receive Holy Communion. As part of our preparation for Holy Communion we should tame the tongue to be ready to receive such a great gift.

We should act according to the dignity of who we are—Temples of the Living God. We ought to also act according to our dignity as future citizens of Heaven, our eternal home with God!

10. Bragging and Boasting

Another form of speech that we should eschew is that of bragging or boasting.

What is this form of speech?  It is when we are praising and placing ourselves above all, lauding and adulating our own supposed greatness. In this we attribute all of our successes, merits, and rewards to our own greatness. This is very displeasing to God because it is the epitome of pride!

God lifts up the lowly, but despises the proud of heart. Our Lady in her Magnificat expresses this truth:

“For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness…
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.”

Our attitude of heart should be that of the Psalmist: Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name give glory.

Avatar photo


Father Ed Broom is an Oblate of the Virgin Mary and the author of Total Consecration Through the Mysteries of the Rosary and From Humdrum to Holy. He blogs regularly at Fr. Broom's Blog.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage