Swear words

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.


  1. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Swear to FSM ya got it right on that.


    Dunno. I swear ..variously ..depending on context.

    It don’ bother me if its not used at me.

    But I wouldn’t ever use the n-word for those whose skins are more UV resistant due to higher melanin content than mine and see sense in that and avoiding other racially charged terms because they are hurtful and wrong.

    Nor would I ever use abusive slurs against gender or sexual orientation because :

    1) Eww …

    2) Wrong. Hurtful, offensive and bigoted and triggering terms are just that.

    3) (& least important) Very pragmatically – How would using such slurs ever help instead of harm whatever argument one is trying to get across anyhow?

  2. justsomeguy says

    Infantilizing is right! It’s a huge pet peeve of mine to be reading a news article and see something like “f-word”. Honestly, I’m more offended by being treated like a child than I am by the word itself. And I don’t think I’ll ever understand what makes any of these words so horrible that people need to be fined for using them in public. I’ve heard about “protecting” kids from these words, but that implies that the words are somehow dangerous (thus necessitating protection).

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    The whole thing about “bad words” is interesting. Slurs meant to objectify and dehumanize someone are certainly distasteful — and enlightened people don’t use them. Those that do, especially as weapons of ridicule in the context of objectifying / dehumanizing someone, in effect “out” themselves as being racist/bigot/misogynist/etc.

    But perfectly good Olde English words like “fuck” and “shit”? They’re highly accurate, very specific as to meaning, and I see no good reason why we avoid them or create euphemisms for them. “The f-word”? Seriously? F-word that s-word, as the kids might say.

    I think it’s kinda funny that you can’t say “shit” on commercial (broadcast) TV in the US, but on those very same stations Hercule Poirot is allowed to say “merdre”, which is the French word for “shit”.

    Then there’s the whole conflation of “bad” words with “swearing”. The biblical injunction against “swearing” is allegedly one of the Big Ten: Do Not Take The Lord’s Name In Vain. But where in that injunction does it say, “don’t say fuck”? Doesn’t.

    Historically speaking, the Commandment was about contracts. When it was written, virtually the entire populace was illiterate. There were no written contracts. So, if you wanted to trade a goat for some grain, you would swear an oath. Often in your deity’s name. The Commandment is about honoring the oath — don’t swear in Yahweh’s name to trade a goat for grain if you don’t actually have a goat to trade. Hence the “in vain” part.

    When that injunction was changed to mean “don’t say bad words”, I do not know. Shortly after, I suspect, because it’s a near-universal conflation of two very different concepts.

  4. says

    @ Kevin, #4: There are two types of swearing, “effing” and “blinding”. Broadly speaking, “effing” is biological in origin (the F-word, obviously; also other words relating to bodily parts and functions), and “blinding” is theological (as in “God blind me”, corrupted over the years to “blimey”, but also including words relating to eternal torture and important Biblical events).

    Probably the first swear word everybody learns is “bloody”; which one might think is effing, since it sounds as though it refers to something biological, but is reckoned actually to be a corruption of “by our lady”, and therefore strictly should be considered blinding.

  5. M can help you with that. says

    I still tend to “bleep” slurs when quoting people — not necessarily for the sake of my audience, partly just because I can’t stand the feeling of even typing them. But those are slurs, not general “bad language” — when it comes to the “biology and blasphemy” words, I don’t give a fuck, dammit.

    (…though according to a few people I interact with professionally, I tend towards squeaky-clean language unless I’m with friends. In casual circumstances, I swear like an English teacher playing video games, but apparently this is the one detail in which I’ve mastered code-switching; apparently, one of my cow orkers thought I was opposed to salty language because he never heard any of it from me.)

  6. says

    I know words that would make your toenails curl, yet I avoid using them. I’m not a prude who wants to avoid having to excuse my behaviour. Rather, I don’t want prudes using my words as an excuse for not answering.

    Too often, the religious are hypocrites (or hypochristians, in the case of one cult). They hurl obscenities and utter death threats and still expect to be listened to. Meanwhile, if anyone tries to use the same language to talk to or about them, those same hypocrites will say, “That’s offensive to my beliefs! I don’t have to listen or talk to that person!”

    It’s the same old song and dance. You don’t even have to use confrontational language for the religious to run away from an argument. How many catholics have you seen blather about pope Francis’ “calls for mercy” then avoid or delete posters who ask they the anti-gay bans exist or why Rome won’t turn in priests to police after molesting children?

    Not using profanity means the religious have one less feeble and pathetic excuse for avoiding facts and arguments that disprove their myths. It may not force them to answer questions, but it does make them look afraid and dishonest except to themselves and others in denial.

  7. permanentwiltingpoint says

    Tim Minchin also has a nice piece on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nVBZieBmXI

    You are right, though, not to use swear words in your own voice, not only for stylistic, but simple pragmatic reasons: Usually, your own rage does not incite rage. It distracts the reader from the facts, and annoys them in trying to manipulate his or her opinion.

    I remember when Stephen Pinker wrote an article on scientism a little while ago, one which PZ Myers was totally disagreeing with. He linked to a post of someone who, lets put it like this, was a lot less measured in his critique than even PZ Myers. And all that stayed with me after reading that post was that he consistently called him “Stephen Fucking Pinker”.

  8. fwtbc says

    I don’t have a huge issue with people saying something like “I refuse to use the F/C/N/whatever word”, that seems perfectly reasonable to me.

    I do really hate seeing fuck written as f*ck for f–k or similar. As a screen-reader user, it can be really jarring listening to something being read and then hearing “I think you should eff kay off” and really throws me off. On really rare occasions, I’ll have to have the sentence spelled out letter by letter so that I can visualise what’s actually written, as it’s not always clear from what’s spoken.

    And like those above, we can all tell that f-ck is meant to be fuck. We’re not two, just write the fucking word and be done with it.

  9. estraven says

    I swear a lot in casual, private conversation (not so much in writing), which is a source of amusement for my grandchildren (ages 10 and 14), who are used to hearing it anyway at home and in the larger society. “Oh, Nana,” they say, “you don’t have to say ‘fudge’ when we know you mean ‘fuck.’ ” My grandson, age nearly 10, has been known to let loose, but not in public. When a punk band recently played at an outdoor venue near my daughter’s home, my grandson was concerned about the profanities he heard over the loudspeaker. There’s a Mormon family in his homeschooling group and my daughter had explained to him that they are offended by swearing, so his response to the punk band’s swearing was, “They shouldn’t do that! There could be Mormons around!”

    But I too have trouble with racial, homophobic, and sexist slurs. I wrote about an experience where someone we didn’t know well came into our home, where we had a Billie Holiday CD on, and our guest said, “Is she colored?” And I hadn’t heard that word in a LONG time and asked why he would use that word. And he said, “Because it’s more polite than n*****.” And I used that construction when I wrote about the incident because I’m not comfortable using the actual word.

    My school-aged kids’ friends used to be mystified when I wouldn’t turn a hair if they used profanity, but would call them out for ethnic, racial, etc. slurs. Profanity may offend some people, but it isn’t hurtful the way those slurs are.

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