I don’t use swear words in my normal conversation or in my writing. But I have no objections to other people using them and those words do not shock or offend me. It is just not my style. But custom dictates that in certain situations, certain words should not be used, the most famous example in the US being the seven words you cannot use on radio or broadcast TV and which comedian George Carlin exploited heavily in one of his most famous standup routines, and for which he was arrested many times, like Lenny Bruce before him.
While everyone has the right to express themselves as they see fit, the tricky issue is for those institutions that don’t normally use them when they are confronted with the task of quoting someone else who uses them. Should they use the same words or should they use euphemisms?
The Economist magazine had an article which argued that news media such as the New York Times, which has a strict policy against using swear words, should drop that restriction. The author makes two points, the first one being that in this day and age, even young children have heard pretty much all the words so what’s the point of avoiding them? But the author goes on:
A second argument is that it is in poor taste for a newspaper to use swear words. But there are two errors here. The first is a theoretical one: the “use-mention distinction”. It would obviously be tasteless for a newspaper’s writers to use offensive language in their own voices. But for a journalist from the Times to report a newsmaker’s gay or racist slur does not make the Times homophobic or racist any more than reporting on a Yankees game makes the journalist a second baseman.
The second issue of “taste” is a journalistic one: simply put, a newspaper’s job is not to report tasteful news. It is to report the news. The horrors of war that the Times reports so excellently are not tasteful. Neither is televised garbage like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”, which the Times has managed to hold its nose and mention in 308 articles. Saveur is in the taste business. The Times is in the news business.
While I agree with the general thrust of the article, there are some words that personally give me great pause even when I am quoting someone else. The words that most bother me are racist and sexist and homophobic slurs. I discussed this issue three years ago, explaining my reasoning in the case of one particular word:
But I still feel highly uncomfortable using the n-word and other words that have a history of being used as slurs, even if I use them purely descriptively or academically and have no bad intent. I think the reason is that anyone who is not a member of the group in question who uses such words has to make sure the context is such that it is clear that the word is not being used as a slur, and that can be tricky. Someone who uses euphemisms like ‘the n-word’ is essentially achieving two purposes: getting their message across while establishing their bona fides of having no racist motives. They are signaling to everyone around them that they disapprove of racist slurs.
I used to, even when quoting others, replace the offensive words with descriptors, euphemisms, or work-arounds such as symbols (*,#,@, etc.) replacing some letters, before deciding that that was infantilizing readers, and now give the quotes verbatim. But I will still not use terms that are racist and sexist and homophobic slurs when writing in my own voice.