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What Makes a Bad Word a Bad Word?

December 15, 2014
I'm usually a polite guy, but sometimes certain inappropriate words must be said (image via wikimedia)

I’m usually a polite guy, but sometimes an  inappropriate word must be uttered. (image via wikimedia)

I yelled out “Sh*t!” in the grocery store today.  It was a little out of character for me.  I rarely use profanity or bad language when I’m out in public.

In this case, I might have been justified. I was reaching for one of those metal handles in the refrigerated section, and I got zapped so hard I could hear the “ZZzzzpppp!”  I yelped out my profanity and danced around swinging my hand when I noticed a family with a bunch of kids watching me.  I’m not sure if they found my profanity or my dancing (or maybe both) curious, so I moved on, embarrassed.

Maybe I shouldn’t have felt bad.  “Sh*t!” is just a word.  I mean, it’s one of those words that I was taught not to say as a kid, but it’s still just a word.  It’s a word that led to me getting my mouth washed out with soap when I was a kid, but it’s still just a word.

Years ago, after I had gotten my mouth washed out with soap (it’s worse than it sounds) and I’d had a moment to reflect, I wondered why some words were so bad to say.  Why was it okay to say “defecation” but not “sh*t”?  Why is it proper to say “copulate” or “fornicate” but not “f*ck”?  Why is it tactful to say “male appendage” instead of “d*ck” or “pr*ck” or “c*ck”?  I almost feel sorry for the male appendage because there’s almost no way to mention it without offending somebody.

As an adult, I understand.  It’s all about the syllables.

If you’re going to refer to a socially sensitive body part or bodily function, you have to use a word with more than one syllable.  “F*ck,” “sh*t,” “c*ck, and almost every other good cuss word has a root word that is only one syllable.  “Fornicate,”  “defecate,” and “appendage” all have several syllables.  Yes, “motherf*cker has four syllables, but the root word is “f*ck,” and any word with “f*ck” is going to be considered a cuss word.  The same principal applies to “sh*thead,” or “sh*tty,” or “sh*tfaced” or “pieceofsh*t.”

The good thing about multisyllabic profanity is that I have a chance to correct or censor myself before I finish swearing.  If I’m with my kids, I try not to swear, but if I’m driving and others on the road aren’t cooperating, I can’t help it.  I catch myself saying/yelling things like:

“Motherf….!”

“You sunuva….!”

“You pieceof…!”

“What the…!”

If I don’t complete the last syllable, it’s not really cussing.  At least, that’s what I tell myself (and my kids).  I’m an adult; I can determine for myself what is profanity and what is not, and a half-swear is not nearly as bad as a full-swear.

Kids, on the other hand, are not allowed to half-swear.  If kids aren’t allowed to use full profanity, they shouldn’t be allowed to half-swear either.  If a kid yells out “Sunuva….!” without completing the word, it should still mean a good mouth-washing (depending on the child protective laws of your state or country).  I wasn’t allowed to half-swear when I was a kid.  Today’s kids shouldn’t be allowed to either.

Since kids sometimes accidentally read Dysfunctional Literacy, I feel obligated to censor the profanity in some way. I’m not sure it’s effective.  If I write “sh*t,” everybody knows what it means.  The * sign isn’t really hiding anything or changing the meaning.  It just makes me feel better as a human being.  I’m a better person than a blogger who actually spells out “sh*t.”  I don’t mean that, but it still makes me feel better.

H#ll, I don’t even know which symbol to use when I write censored profanity. None of them look right.  Is there a standardized symbol for each profane word?  If there isn’t, maybe somebody should develop one.  I’d do it, but I’m kind of wishy-washy, and none of the symbols look right to me anyway.

It’s probably because of people like me that words are considered vulgar at all. After all, I have standards.  I want civilization to be civilized.    If it weren’t for people like me, everybody could walk around naked in public yelling “F*ck!” all the time and nobody would care.  But yelling “F*ck!” all the time would get old quickly (and I don’t want to see most people naked).  It’s not really censorship because I don’t believe the government should put you in jail for yelling “F*ck!”  I think a disapproving look is enough (except for kids, whose mouths should be washed out with soap).

In a civilized society, some words (and maybe even ideas) should not be spoken publicly.  And some words should not be spoken by kids until they’re adults.  Kids should have something to look forward to, and freedom of profane expression is awesome when you’ve been getting your mouth washed out with soap for 16-18 years.  I just realized that my mom wasn’t being abusive when she was washing out my mouth; she was guaranteeing that I would appreciate profanity when I was an adult.

Profanity has its place.  It can be a useful stress reliever if the words are used sparingly.  Spout your curse words too frequently, however, and they lose their power.  I don’t know if that’s really true; it just sounds good to me.

So the next time you crack your head against a cabinet, and the only relief from the pain comes from screaming “F*ck!” really loud, thank people like me.

*****

What do you think?  Is there such a thing as a bad word?  Is there any logic behind it?  In what situations do you use bad words?  Was getting my mouth washed out with soap that bad (or is my memory over-dramatizing things)?  Is a half-swear as bad as a full-swear?

*****

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54 Comments
  1. A bad word to me is a normal word with a sometimes bad meaning.Like I will mutter it under my breath.To me,it isn’t really one.

    • Muttering it under your breath is a good idea. It gives us plausible deniability if anybody hears the offensive language. I think I need to teach myself to mutter.

  2. My wife and I sometimes argue about swearing. In defense of it I always use what George Carlin said about it: “Profanity didn’t arrive here on the train from hell.” It never gets me anywhere with her, but I do like that he said it, and I agree with it.

    • I guess arguing about swearing is okay, as long as you don’t swear while you’re arguing. Swearing while I’m arguing has always been counterproductive, but it would probably even be worse if I was swearing while I was arguing about swearing.

      • Anonymous permalink

        Ok , sware words are against the Bible dont use them even half sware words.

  3. It is odd how some words become profanity. For instance, I have a South African friend who though of sh*t and crap as reversed, so crap was the really bad one. I debate about swearing in writing, since sometimes the scene seems to demand it, even if I wouldn’t say it myself.

    • Have you ever used profanity on your blog? I don’t remember you doing that. I’d probably remember. I’d probably be shocked. In fact, I’d probably swear in shock that you had used profanity. But if you used profanity, I know it would be well-written profanity, and that’s way better than poorly-written profanity.

  4. My worst cussing moment: had my 2-year old strapped in the jogging stroller, my foot on the bumper tying up my laces. the lace broke, i blurted ‘fuck!’, and spent the next five miles trying to get the kid to say truck and fruck and yuck, to no avail. i’ve got a slippery filter in front of the kids, and have been pulled aside at school pickups more than once…

    One of the best books ever written: English as a Second F**king Language. Can’t find my copy, modeled on the famous slim Strunk and White volume. Damn.

    • Some celebrity as few months ago said that everybody here should learn how to speak G#dd@m English, so maybe English as a Second F**king Language would be the best textbook to use.

  5. Yes, getting your mouth washed out with soap really is worse than it sounds and every bit as bad as you remember. 😉

    I accidentally taught my daughter to say God D@*m It when she was two. I didn’t know she was watching me change a flat tire. Had to explain when I dropped her off at daycare and she was still saying it.

    • In that situation, you’re supposed to act outraged and blame the daycare center. And then when your daughter gets older, you can blame the schools. On the other hand, I guess it’s probably good that you take responsibility for your daughter’s profanity.

  6. You know what, there was a time when I could say cock without flinching because it didn’t have anything to do with male appendage. It was a humble word that referred to the male version of hen. Wonder when they decided it was a dirty word and changed its spelling to c*ck. And if I ever find out who ‘they’ are, I’ll be sure to direct them to this post. But only after I’m done punching them in their face(s).

    • Well, there was the old joke about farm boys playing with their cocks, but I’m not sure when that joke became a joke, and I’m not sure if farm boys were ever allowed to play with any kinds of cocks in the first place.

  7. The intent or message should be the focus, rather than which word is used. Horrible things can be said without swearing.
    Australians tend to swear a lot and the swearwords are often funny, affectionate or meaningless. Although I have to agree, no parent wants to be responsible for a swear word coming out of their child’s mouth. Monkey see, monkey do.

    • That’s true, some people can cuss more affectionately and with more humor than others, but it usually takes some practice. Or maybe it’s more talent than practice.

  8. nikkif181 permalink

    Thought provoking article.
    I personally think swear words are not bad. What I think is bad is the associations we put on them, we as people make words bad, but they themselves are not. Different generations and cultures all have different swear words. I cant quite think of any examples at present. If I do I will share my findings.

    • True, each culture has its own set of vulgarities (I’ve heard that too, so I assume it must be true). I just wonder how many cultures use the washing of the mouth as punishment on its children for using profanity.

      • nikkif181 permalink

        I do know that many of my home grown Australian friends and English friends all had their mouths washed out with soap. But honestly I’ve never asked someone from another culture if this happened to them too as a child.

        • I just stumbled upon this piece and comment so I shall leave my two cents here 🙂
          In my culture we never had our mouths washed out with soap. What we got instead was a whooping of a lifetime and you know better than to swear

          • nikkif181 permalink

            Thanks for sharing =) Its really interesting how different places discipline there kids.

  9. I think this has to do with the region or part of the world you are from….in nigeria, it is worse…i remember my mum beating me to stupor cos i used the F-word….in some other parts of Nigeria, there is nothing wrong with screaming FUCK YOU right in the middle of a crowded street!

    • Do you have to have done something in order to have somebody scream “F#CK YOU!,” or do people just do it randomly? I like to have done something offensive or wrong before I get cursed at.

      I mean, I don’t LIKE doing anything offensive or wrong. It’s just that I rarely get cursed at, and I really don’t like getting cursed at for no reason.

      • Ofcos u must have done something to get d cuss word… Only a maniac goes about cussing innocent people.

  10. Is stupid a cuss word? I find it more offensive than f*ck or S**t because it is an insult to ones intelligence. How about m*ron? Since when a handicap becomes a dirty word?

  11. luviesdollhouse permalink

    when i read this i could not help but to smile because it happened to me but in a different place. 🙂

  12. jtggodqos permalink

    hm, I’m quite the opposite of you. I curse all the d*mn time, uncensored. (I’ll try to remember to censor myself when commenting on your blog, henceforth.) I managed a heliport when I was in my early 20s. being around the pilots, off-shore workers, and mechanics all the time, and being a general Social Sponge, I definitely picked up their habit of liberally using profanity. in fact, during my linguistics studies in high school and at college, I wrote numerous papers on profanity and its application to and importance in society.

    however, I never looked at it from a syllabic perspectives. I wonder if multiple syllables are more “acceptable” because they sound more advanced — like saying “I hate that” versus “I abhor that”, or “mad” versus “angry” versus “livid” versus “infuriated”. this is something I’m going to look more into. thanks for sharing!!

  13. jtggodqos permalink

    Reblogged this on James the Greatest and commented:
    hm, I’m quite the opposite of the author. I curse all the damn time. I managed a heliport when I was in my early 20s. being around the pilots, off-shore workers, and mechanics all the time, and being a general Social Sponge, I definitely picked up their habit of liberally using profanity. in fact, during my linguistics studies in high school and at college, I wrote numerous papers on profanity and its application to and importance in society.

    however, I never looked at it from a syllabic perspective. I wonder if multiple syllables are more “acceptable” because they sound more advanced — like saying “I hate that” versus “I abhor that”, or “mad” versus “angry” versus “livid” versus “infuriated”. this is something I’m going to look more into.

  14. I think people are turned off by most swear words (particularly the single syllable ones you mentioned) because of how they sound. I believe it has little to do with what the word actually means. I think the hard “T” and hard “K” sounds in words like sh*t, c*ck, and f*ck are what really bother people. There is just something about the sound that is abrasive to them.

  15. Okay so i cannot be considered that big, but still, i cuss. Although i try to avoid in public, but if the gate of the car bangs with my leg, or something similar to that, i can’t really help it. And i believe half cussing is bad. Be open about it, or stay silent. And yes, it must have been horrid, having your mouth washed by soap water. Thinking about it gives me bad shivers. Great post by the way!

  16. I love the half swear! It leaves things to the imagination. Or better, the “clean” rip-off (e.g., “got down sat on a bench” for “god d*mn son-of-a b*&ch, or “Cheese and Rice” for Jesus Christ–which isn’t universally offensive but was certainly a curse in my grandmother’s eyes).

    Here’s my preferred version of the clean rip-off: Son-of-a biscuit-eating basketball player. Biscuit has that nice, hard c and t which makes it very satisfying to say, and the “son-of-a” part makes me feel like I’m swearing which is cathartic as well. Bonus: I don’t mind if my kids say it on the playground.

    As for soap in mouth. I think it depends on the kind of soap. For example, Dove for sensitive skin, or hand-made oatmeal cinnamon might not be so bad. Ivory or Lava, though? D*mn!

  17. It’s good to have words we don’t use. Not using them is what separates us from the beasts. The beasts are the ones who use them thinking why the “f*ck” not.

  18. I thought this was a good point. It’s interesting that the power we give words makes them profane. At one point in time all the curses we can think of were once just that, words. Culturally as well some words have more emphasis than others. In Europe cunt is a playful term for mate (I heard it hundreds of times on my adventures abroad) whereas in the US I fell awful even just writing it and it’s highly offensive. I really enjoyed your thoughts.

  19. I agree overuse of cuss words take away their power. That’s why I do not use them much. Any overused expression detracts from the thought it takes to create an original response, which is remembered for much longer. There are a few sex words I do not like–pussy and cock–for example. I use the proper names when possible. I do find a strange that the one thing we ought to celebrate–sex–is the source of the most overused and offensive retorts. What bothers me about this is that procreation and the urge to mate is the primary driving force in most of our emotional lives. To treat it like an evil secret is so profane in itself.

  20. I never realized that almost every other good cuss word has a root word that is only one syllable. 🙂

    Re: half-swears, I think that they’re only half as bad as a full-swear. In such cases, you were able to stop yourself just in time!

  21. I think having ‘bad words’ helps kids at school bond over being able to use them socially. They know they aren’t accepted in more formal situations so being able to use them together is good for kids. Not that i condone teaching them to kids but it’s an inevitable part of growing up.

  22. There’s no such thing as a bad word. Only a bad time to use it. While you’re at it, check my sites out, I’m a science-fiction/fantasy writer.

  23. Charles Lominec permalink

    This post made me chuckle aloud at my desk. I think words only have the power that we humans give them. Unfortunately, sometimes that power rests in the hands of another and can be used against us. For example, I won’t curse around my grandmother or at a job interview, because they have given those words a power. Since they have something I want (love from my grandmother and a job from the interviewer) that gives them a power over my behavior.

    I agree that profanity needs to be used with moderation. They lose their impact if used too often. I usually refrain from it in my writing; because when I reread it to myself, it reads like a cheap short cut to evoke emotion.

    Good post!

  24. Thanks for the insight. I didn’t really believe some things to actually be true, but seemingly, they are.

    I guess the whole thing has two main sources: Religion and prestige. Especailly, I suppose (without any offense intended) in American culture with its at leaast part-Puritan roots, which are visible even in the term for it, “swearing” – meaning a vow, originally. Hence emotonial referrences to religious figures can be taken as transgressions to the second commandmend (and for fun, one could try to swear “Buddha!” or the likes 😉 So, it’s not really “vulgarity”, but more a pious taboo.

    As to vulgarity, well, it originally means “the common man’s way”. So, if one made something of oneself, one tried to get rid of common manners (e.g. “My Fair Lady”) and become polite (civilised, the more refined polis’ way) or, as we have it in German, höflich (aristocratic, the royal court’s way). Hence it’s about being part of and fitting into a distinguished social class.

    Therefore what makes “bad words” bad are fear and the will to be (or behave) somewhat better than others. So much to the logic. And I think, the one-syllable-thing fits in there, as “simple men” are considered to employ rather short expressions. But then, of course, there is a phantastic creativity involved. Let’s say: A cock is a bird, a pussy is a cat – cat eats bird, or bird hits cat, or maybe they are just playing around or kissing, not vulgar at all, is it? Until you hit the metaphorical plains.

    Oh, and I think, it is a good idea to teach children good manners, yet not so easy to teach or forbid them what to think. But an appropriate choice of expression in accordance with the situation, that is a perk. Just, please, don’t ever mention soap in the mouth again – that’s for the body, for the mouth we have toothpaste.

    Greetings from the old continent.

  25. I have had to clean up my potty mouth since becoming a mom but still find cussing much more effective at conveying the truth of my emotions. Very rarely do I have a “well, my stars” moment. It’s mostly a “what in the name of Mary and Joseph” moment. There are rules in civilized society, and I don’t care for it if we are at the movies or a restaurant and 20 somethings nearby are saying F this and F that. Let’s start saying Bollocks like Brits do.

  26. Reblogged this on onyxblood.

  27. Probably best to refrain from swearing in a pet shop. Parrots have a habit of picking up on obscenities rather too easily..

  28. Interesting! I would think that it isn’t the meaning, or the sound, or the number of syllables that makes a “bad word” a “bad word,” but just because using it is thought of as being rude.

    Maybe if, from the beginning, professionals and civilized polite people used bad words (not that everyone who uses words like these isn’t polite) in professional and civilized ways, the words would be thought of as being professional and polite (as far as their meanings would let them.)

    But since those words are often used to be offending or rude or to show that a person doesn’t care, they are considered bad.

    Maybe that’s why it’s okay, in schools or whatever, to read bad words in context when said by a character in literature, but not okay to say them. (You would let your kids read about people doing things you wouldn’t want them to do.)

    I really hope this doesn’t make it sound like I think all people who swear are crude and mean. I don’t! 🙂

  29. Bad words, as you call them, are really effective when you don’t have much to say in that fit of rage and can only gesticulate with violently moving hands and eyes popping out of the sockets. Certain references to the female members of the listener’s (usually the offender) family make it even more effective. However, it is better to yell the nastiest words out instead of typing them in an angry e-mail because when cornered you can claim that the guy heard it wrong and he is just trying to win votes. Bad words are alright though, it is the tone in which they are spoken that decides camaraderie, surprise, grief or anger.

    PS: In India bad words spoken in Hindi or any other local language are considered dirtier and ‘unrefined’, too be only used by the drunk illiterates, but the same feelings articulated in English get you counted as an elite (and probably prevent you from getting punched in the face as most of the people don’t really get it).

  30. I often use not-so-cleverly disguised words such as ‘Fudge-cakes’ when I really need to swear. I say “not-so-cleverly disguised” because everyone I know seems to have figured me out! haha, oops.

  31. Anonymous permalink

    Wtf is wrong with u and your parents.. u guys need help

  32. Hubby and I had a disagreement about the use of swears with our 14 year old. She said Bloody hell, and I thought it was a bit ridiculous to discipline her for something so tame in the world of cursing. I know when I was young I used curse words rarely, and usually away from adults. My only swears I said then were sh*t and I would say an alternative word for b*tch as I thought that was too offensive to say even in private. Any swearing near mom was punishable by scraping bar soap on my teeth to make sure it lingered, and I will never do such a thing to my own kids.

    Anyway, after I left home and joined the Army I very quickly picked up lots of swear words and said them often. I still swear a lot more than I should, but I try to use alternatives at least when I’m not driving. I had an auto accident a couple decades ago, and the frontal head injury contributed to some very profuse cursing, which has subsided a lot, but while driving I have a tendency to let loose. Driving causes me anxiety and stress, I think the swearing at dangerous drivers and situations helps me to deal with some of it, and it’s difficult to control once my anxiety gets too high.

    Hubby still feels cursing should not be used, and thinks it makes those who use it seem less intelligent, since they could think of other words to express themselves. I think that’s bs. I don’t feel non swearers are any more intelligent than those who do swear, they just exercise more self control. I also find those who get too upset over it (except around kids) are pudish. To me, trying to stop others from using it, is the same as censorship. I do agree that overuse of swearing takes away it’s benefits, and just makes the person swearing seem out of control or careless, but using it for extreme circumstances has it’s emotional benefits.

    I also do not agree with using it around or on kids of any age. I heard some guy on a field trip with a group of cheerleaders swearing at one of the cheerleaders and calling her a b*tch, the girl looked terrified and horribly humiliated. I called the guy out on that, as there is no good reason for using that language on a teenager. Someone even told me to mind my own business, but that is not something I will do if you’re getting that carried away in dealing with a kid. My mom used to cuss me out sometimes using that word, so it really bothers me when I hear it. Anyway, they’re words, but the way words are sometimes used, and the context they are used in, they can sometimes really sting.

  33. Dragonblaster permalink

    “Bad words” are only bad because they’re horrible, common Anglo-Saxon instead of decent, civilised Norman French. So:

    “Bullsh*t” is ghastly, but “bovine excrement” is refined and cultured (it’s still exactly the same brown, steaming, malodorous stuff).
    “Fu*ker” is horrible, but “fornicator” is OK.
    “Arse” is beyond the pale, but “fundament” is fine in polite company
    “Belly” is somehow earthy and crude, but “stomach” and its derivative,”tummy”, are quite unexceptionable

    I am convinced this is the sole difference between “good” and “bad” words. I can’t think of any “bad” ones that aren’t Anglo-Saxon in origin, and the loner, more flowery “good” words for exactly the same concept tend to be derived from French.

    Even the condemnatory word “vulgar” means “of the common people,” i.e. under the Norman Conquest, the Saxons.

    It’s quite astonishing how, centuries after Anglo-Saxon reasserted itself as the dominant tongue of England in the 14th century with Henry IV, who spoke English as his native language, this bit of snobbery from a seven-hundred-year-gone dictatorship still holds forth.

    I find it a little ironic, that someone saying, “You just said a bad word,” would have been scoffed at (in French, or course) for using vulgar language in the unlamented days of serfdom. It isn’t the concept, it’s the language in which it’s spoken.

    However, if any historian knows better, I’m more than happy to be educated.

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  1. By Any Other Name | Snakes in the Grass
  2. The Science of Swearing Lately I’ve been thinking about… | Scientiflix

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