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Apr. 27 2009 - 10:54 am | 2,979 views | 3 recommendations | 51 comments

The Most Offensive Word in the English Language

Ambrose Bierce, author of An Unfinished Race

Image via Wikipedia

Warning: The following post contains offensive language. In fact, it contains a whole lot of offensive language, because the point of the piece is to examine where people currently stand vis-a-vis the single most offensive word in the English language. So, if you’re easily offended at the sight of such words, or, even if you’re not, please read on…

The other day I was re-watching George Carlin’s famous routine on the words you can’t say on TV: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits, fart, turd, and twat. You see, a few nights earlier, I’d been involved in a dinner party discussion with a bunch of parents on whether it was alright to swear in front of your kids, and, after feeling a bit like an alien (yes, I do swear in front of my kids) I think I needed to hear Carlin talk some foul-mouthed sense.

But this also got me thinking about the power of words. Not that they exist in some sort of perfect Aristotelian state somewhere in the heavens, pre-ordained in categories of good or evil, rather, their impact is determined solely by the human beings who speak them. Furthermore, their resonance changes over time. Insults and exclamations that cut to the core in past generations, sound antiquated to today’s ears.

So, what is the most offensive word in our present day English language? Would we even find it in Ambrose Bierce’s naughty volume “The Devil’s Dictionary”? Of course, the single most important factor in determining whether or not a word or phrase is offensive is the context in which it is spoken.

The word “nigger”, for example (no, we’re not going to dance around it with first letter abbreviations here), remains about as offensive as can be when uttered from a white person’s mouth. But not so for people of color. That word has been reclaimed by the segment of the population it was meant to demean, as well as by other ethnic groups (think of Asian and Hispanic rappers calling each other “nigger”). Again, intention is everything.

For a time, it seemed that white males intended to offend just about everybody else on the planet. With great power, comes the need to rub it in, I guess. So, a slew of derogatory terms was crafted to try to put women and minorities in their proper place: spic, gook, wet back, fag, spear-chucker, kike, cunt, slut, etc., etc.

While it’s easy to understand why direct insults have their desired effect, more curious to me is why a word like “shit”, when exclaimed aloud, should cause such a stir. And why is it that, according to a recent study, productivity is boosted in workplaces where one is allowed to swear openly? Are we so beholden to puritanical norms that swearing actually releases stress?

Even if you’re not particularly bothered by the thought of hearing the word “fucking” spew forth from the mouth of a television anchorman, you probably have a word or two you’d never say in the presence of other people, or that you chastise yourself for even thinking (talk about guilt!). So what’s on your taboo vocabulary list? Let it out, you might just feel better.


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  1. collapse expand

    You’re off to a pretty good start there David, certainly cunt, kike, spear chucker, gook, and spic would be on my list. Fuck and shit have just become too damn generic and too incorporated into our daily American lives to have very much impact anymore. Also words like shit and fuck at their core aren’t words that insult, the other words do. Even nigger has morphed into a less toxic form, “nigga” which is often used by young white guys wanting to come of as being “ghetto cool”.

    When push comes to shove cunt would be at the top of my list.

  2. collapse expand

    Brian,

    I think the threshold question is also relative. I currently live in the deep south, and some people here really are offended at the words “shit” and “fuck.’

    I had to laugh at your last sentence, by the way.

  3. collapse expand
    Art in Tally

    Dave, I’m not one to shy from a well timed (or poorly timed for that matter) fuck or goddamnit. I am with you: context and intent matter most. That said, I agree with Brian. Cunt tops my list; though, I think bitch–when delivered instead of but with the inflection of cunt–is equally offensive.

    Aside: Many of the southerners (and others) you allude to would also point to the Bible’s prohibition to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” as an argument to never say “God damn it.” But a much more literal translation of the Hebrew there points to not taking on the name of god for the sake of vanity. Much like those who puff up their righteous self perception by condemning others’ speech …

    And for fun, my favorite these days comes from “O Brother, Where Art Thou”: soft-headed sum-bitch

  4. collapse expand

    B,

    Can I suggest a re-write? “Though I recoil at the thought of the corresponding body part, ‘cunt’ would have to be at the top…”

  5. collapse expand

    Art,

    All good points. Depending on the situation and delivery, “bitch” can be every bit as offensive as “cunt”. Are the internet censors reading this yet?

    The “Lord’s name in vain” thing is, of course, pretty familiar to us in Jacksonville, but do you have a specific example of the Hebrew case-in-point?

    • collapse expand
      Art in Tally

      Not really, Dave. The word corresponding with “in vain” from older translations is now translated often as “misuse” (both in the Deu 5 listing of the 10 commandments, as well as other places like Psalm 139:20). So, it often reads “Do not misuse the name of the Lord …”, which points to a meaning much broader than just damnation. Hence, the theological turn by some to a broader understanding of the verse (a la what is said to be Jesus’ own reinterpretation of the commandments in Matthew 5).

      OK, that’s as much seminary days redux as I can take for one blog post …

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Art,

    Love it. So the whole notion that it isn’t permitted to say “Jesus Christ” when you drop a hammer on your toe is pretty much a drastic over-read on the part of some theologian along the way?

    • collapse expand
      Art in Tally

      Perhaps. Although, that specific case may better be traced to the ancient Hebrew practice of not actually saying or writing the name of the divine out of a sense of awe and reverence. That is, the presumed holiness of the term YHWH led to people to deal with the term itself in a much more, shall we say, cautious way.

      But, the interpretation that suggests that one of the 10 commandments is (and solely means) “Don’t say ‘God damn it’” seems naive at best.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand
    ty wenzel

    Hey David,

    You know, I don’t get the horrified look on people’s faces when they hear the world “cunt” as if our body parts are so ghastly that the mere word makes everyone cringe. It’s sexism of the American’s nth degree. In Europe, “cunt” is used like “asshole” or “dickhead” and no one bats an eyelash. “Cunt” is such a puritanical’s hang-up IMHO.

    Them’s my two cents…

    • collapse expand
      Art in Tally

      I definitely get your point, Ty. But back to intent and context. Every time I have ever heard cunt used (save for someone trying to be funny), it seemed to me that the speaker’s sole intent was to deliver the most damaging, hate-filled, belittling, dehumanizing invective ever imagined. Cunt in my experience is not delivered with shades of meaning, intentional or otherwise. And surely the puritanical mores here in the States (especially in the South) imbue the speech with such meaning. That is, without the puritanical baggage, the word does not have the rhetorical punch intended. But that is the way all language works. Meaning is created within a context and relies upon shared understanding. So, to me, given my linguistic past, cunt is the most offensive. I can perfectly see why it is not for others. But I can assure you that it is not borne out of a conscious or latent fear of or hatred for vaginas.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand
        Ty Wenzel

        I understand your point, Art. However, what we need to remember, no matter the context in which the word is used, is that a cunt is literally the most intimate and glorious female body part which makes up our sexuality – to say that this fact can be ignored because someone wants to create the most damage with their words is really a slap to every woman’s cheek (pun intended)… I find it simply offensive that “penis” or “dick” does not provoke the same horrified look on a person’s face. This is because, IMHO, men have for thousands of years been terrified of female sexuality (female circumcisions, virginity reinstatement operations, etc.). Isn’t it time to say, “Hey you freakin’ cunt” without feeling like someone just called your mother a fucking whore, or worse? Europeans get it, when are we going to get it?

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    Ty,

    I couldn’t agree more. That’s the thing about “insulting” women. Men do it by reducing them to female genitalia, as if this were itself the ultimate insult. Pretty silly stuff that feeds into a very unfortunate sense of self-loathing on the part of many women.

  9. collapse expand

    I am not sure about “in Europe”, but definitely in the UK, and other countries who still have the Queen on their dollar notes, the c-word can be employed rather differently; even as a term of affection. Y’know “you’re a good c***”. The past masters of c-word usage were of course Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek and Clive phase. A cult classic, the word is cult…

  10. collapse expand

    So, Scott,

    Since cunt is out of the running, do you have another word you’d like to nominate?

    • collapse expand

      Oh, I think it’s still in the running! My own favourite curse is “Bloody, buggery, bollocks!” It’s not all that strong, but it feels really good saying it. Perhaps we should look to other languages? As my regular readers know, I lived in Budapest for over 5 years, and Hungarians have some fairly pungent swear words. ‘Korva’, which means bitch but is used more like son-of-a-bitch. And ‘Bozmeg’ which means fuck, but is used to say ‘fuck off’. I hope that’s er, useful.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  11. collapse expand

    Interesting discussion – however, just because Carlin’s seven aren’t included in a person’s vernacular doesn’t mean that person is offended by them or imbedded in puritanical mores. The f word rolls off my tongue about as naturally as a German accent. I’m not offended by either; it’s just not my voice.

  12. collapse expand

    Scott,

    Yes, there is special pleasure in swearing in a foreign language. The Spanish “puta” meaning bitch, is one that always sounded so emphatic to my ears.

  13. collapse expand

    Kim,

    Fair enough. Though if you really want to boost your productivity at work, you might want to expand your voice a bit.

  14. collapse expand

    Brian,

    I’m a big fan of the cocktail party discussion. These big questions that always lead to interesting insights. Like the technology thread from last week.

  15. collapse expand

    No word has bothered me lately more than `jobless.’

  16. collapse expand

    Jamie,

    Certainly, that’s a bitter one. As is the term 401K. Are they offensive? I guess that’s a political argument in the making.

  17. collapse expand
    Bob

    Before I read the post, but after reading the title, I immediately jumped to the c- word (ok, I’ll just say it — CUNT!!) as the most offensive in the (American) english language. I still see it as a verboten word even among the young and vulgar. It’s the kind of thing I won’t even say to my male friends when it’s “just the guys” lest they think I am secretly an angry misogynist. Interestingly, though, the wide availability of porn has taken the edge off “cunt” in somewhat the same manner that rap has taken the edge off “nigger.” It’s the kind of word you can’t say in social settings, but you might be able to say in bed (or more likely, the woman might say in reference to herself when she wants to get extra dirty), given the popularity of the word among the porn starlet set.

    As for alternates that might be more offensive, I’m hard pressed to think of any other more universally offensive than cunt. However, I’ve heard some pretty creative and offensive synonyms to describe “sluts” (eg, “cum sponges” “sperm dumpsters”) and “fags” (eg, “sword swallowers” “shit eaters”).

    All of these reinforce the basic tenets of what makes for an offensive word:
    1. Utterly dehumanizing
    2. Spoken with intent to degrade and humiliate the subject/object
    3. Spoken by one group of people (typically those in power such as males or whites, or even better, white males) to refer the “other” (either societal outcasts or those not in power — and if possible, both – eg, those faggot kike niggers).

    What a wonderful post and discussion thread — so cathartic! Now I can go to sleep in peace.

    SHIT FUCK NIGGER CUNT!! Yikes, I think this post has afflicted me with adult onset Tourette’s Syndrome! MOTHERFUCKER ASS WHORE!!! DAMN YOU DAVIDE KNOWLES!!! ;)

  18. collapse expand

    Bob,

    I very much liked your three points. And, hopefully, peaceful sleep will follow, if not increased work productivity.

  19. collapse expand

    Cunt, fag, and nigger top my list. They make me cringe every time. Yet, at least when it comes to the c-word, I’m trying to see it in a new light after reading the following by my friend Hugh on Nerve.com: http://www.nerve.com/personalessays/ryan/by-any-other-name-how-my-glbt-students-taught-me-to-love-a-forbidden-word — well worth a read.

  20. collapse expand

    Right now I’d have to say “swine” and “flu.”

  21. collapse expand

    David,

    My family has actually had this conversation. My Mom and I were the only two that agreed. I come from a large family that is always getting bigger. My Mom and I decided the worst thing you can call a man or a woman is a cunt. My Mom says it is simply the ugliest word she has ever heard. For me, it is one syllable that does the most damage with the least amount of effort. Maybe I’m just lazy.

    It offends women for obvious reasons and emasculates men in a split second. Well, that’s my take. Besides, I believe it to be timeless.

    Sandy

  22. collapse expand

    Well, “cunt” seems to be the big winner, so to speak. That makes sense, given that women make up more than half of the world population and are so disparaged by that word.

    Laura, I liked the Nerve article.

    Sandy, shouldn’t every family have this discussion?

    Scott, Derek and Clive is great.

    • collapse expand

      David,

      It came up in an innocent way. My brother Kerry always uses the word fuck in some form to needle my Mom every single time he is there. My Mom finally said something and it was pointed out that there were a lot worse things he could say starting yet another Clark low-brow affair. There wasn’t one us without an opinion. I guess there rarely is…we aren’t shy people.

      Sincerely,

      Sandy

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  23. collapse expand

    Scott — Thanks for the Derek and Clive shout out; probably my favorite comic routine ever. Much funnier, I think, than Carlin and more effective at showing the absurdity of singling out “cunt” as our most offensive word. I don’t think there’s really anything inherently offensive about it other than the fact that it’s been agreed upon as a linguistic no-fly zone. It’s really the place where dogmatic feminism and old-fashioned prudery meet. And then it’s a feedback loop: It’s a bad, bad word, so it’s only used as the ultimate insult, which reinforces the badness of it, which reinforces the impulse to use it in unilateral nuclear strike capacity.

    Still, I’m not one to throw that word around here in the United States. I’ve been called a cunt myself in the UK and have found the experience generally agreeable. Here, the fact that the word has been vilified means that it’s off limits to me. I guess I don’t have the nerve to toss it around and risk being chewed out by the easily offended within earshot.

    Which is ok, really. I have no problem with certain words being used in certain contexts. I can swear like a sailor, but I don’t care to do so around my 72-year-old mom or my toddler or during an important meeting or when exchanging pleasantries with members of the clergy. After all, if we used these prohibited words all the time they’d lose their power. They’d be a lot less fun. And that silly cunt George Carlin would never have had a career.

  24. collapse expand

    Mark,

    Your point about these words losing their power when they are spoken too much is interesting. In a way, I think that’s what happened with “nigger”, and can also account for the differences in the way American and European ears hear “cunt”.

    It’s funny, getting upset over these words seems at once deadly serious and pathetically trivial. I certainly don’t wish, or think it possible, for a word without taboos. The point of the post is really just to take a lay of the land.

  25. collapse expand

    Offensive depends on who you are talking to. I know guys for whom Carlin’s seven words are just a normal part of the lexicon, whereas if you call them a goof or a bitch, you’d better have a good head start.

    Where I live, any of those insults, uttered in public, gets you put in jail and deported…if you’re still alive. Call someone a pig or a swine, you can only hope you’ll make it to jail.

  26. collapse expand

    Mark, I adore you, you know I do, but there is about a million miles of difference between calling a guy a cunt and calling a woman a cunt. Words are mere words, but they have tremendous power, and we experience that force when they’re wielded against us. Against a guy, “cunt” is a weak jab. Against a woman, it’s a different weapon entirely, and it’s meant that way.

    • collapse expand

      Dear Laura Collins-Hughes,

      You being a woman and me being a man certainly comes in to play here. I say cunt is the worst thing you can call a man or a woman and you say calling a man a cunt is a weak jab. Maybe it’s regional or some other thing is coming into play here, but calling a man a cunt is going straight for the jugular; not a weak jab…at least in my little world. I agree with my Mom. It’s just such an ugly word. Synonyms don’t do the same damage. Why is that?

      Most things men call men are actually heard as funny. Maybe a good test is to throw a few my way and I will tell you my honest reaction or maybe there is no good way to test it with it being the topic. Food for thought.

      Sincerely and respectfully,

      Sandy

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  27. collapse expand

    LCH — I wouldn’t disagree with you and I don’t really express an opinion diverging from yours in my comment. The word has indeed become a “different weapon” for whatever reason, and there it is. I would be a fool to fight against this, even if I might think the reasons for it becoming so are random and and a bit spurious.

  28. collapse expand

    Oooh, Mark, I’m pretty sure Laura’s subliminally calling you a most-offensive-word!

    Actually, I still think it depends on context and tone no matter what the word. On the Celebrity Apprentice last week, Joan Rivers called nemesis Annie Duke ‘Hitler’ in a clearly offensive way. And then Melissa Rivers called Annie Duke a ‘whore.’ Also in an offensive way. But we all can see circumstances where those names would be tossed about in a less offensive manner. Raise your hands, I know some of you have done it…

    And to prove I have sources other than prime-time TV shows: I saw a story recently about a guy who used an API to graph the decline and fall of various swear words in The Guardian over the last 10 years.
    Imagine what George Carlin would have done with a fancy curse-word API…

  29. collapse expand

    Andrea,

    With the perfect link for the thread! Thank you.

  30. collapse expand

    Best post ever on True/SLant and Rozzo–your comment is spot on: we treat Cunt like the neutron bomb, and it keeps it that way.

    I was powerless to worry about swearing with the kids thanks to my wonderful foul mouthed mother in law who out swears me by a power of ten.

    That plus my young kids’ favorite song lyric is Fuck Bush and Fuck this War from Kimya Dawson on the Juno soundtrack.

    Now, I would nominate Oprah’s V-Jay-Jay as the most repulsive

  31. collapse expand

    I don’t know if anyone’s still reading this thread, but I have to get this out. The

    term I find most offensive is not “nigger,” but the term “the N-word” itself.

    I can’t stand how people handle this subject (and KUDOS to any parent who doesn’t

    avoid swearing in front of their kids as a policy). Here is what I know: hateful words

    are bad because of the hate with which they are usually imbued. The same words without

    the attached meaning or sentiments are just SOUNDS. And sounds do not hurt people.

    For instance, which statement is more offensive:

    -”Porch monkey is a term often used as a racial epithet.”

    or

    -”All people of African ancestry are dirty and lazy.”

    Did you double-take after reading the first sentence? Is there ANY REASON to find the

    first sentence more offensive than the second? Of course not.

    I am not lobbying for the widespread social acceptance of words like this, and I have

    no desire to run around using them all the time. I’m just sick of the double-standard

    pushed by society when it incessantly reminds me to reject certain words, no matter

    HOW hypothetical or harmless their context, while other words that usually carry

    equally despicable meanings are allowed to carry virtually no social stigma at all.

    For example, I just watched the Comedy Central “roast” of David Hasselhoff. They threw

    around the words “cock” and “dick” and “fag” and really pushed the limits with super

    racy jokes about the Holocaust, AIDS, and extreme sexual perversion. These jokes were

    meant to be as politically incorrect as possible.
    Yet the only words that were censored were “cunt” and “twat” (“nigger” was not

    relevent or spoken). How is this not a double standard during a program where everyone

    knows vulgarity will be used VERY liberally? Why is “dick” okay to be said, but “twat”

    isn’t? Because of the way it …sounds? Does one group of people deserve to have their

    sensitivities ignored and the other doesn’t?
    The answer is because over time, society has come to designate “cunt” and “twat” as

    being more offensive than “cock” and “dick.” But THIS is because over time, one group

    of people routinely CHOSE to take offense while the other routinely did not. It has

    nothing to do with the word itself and everything to do with the way people use it and

    react to it.

    My point is this: no one should let society tell them what shoud offend them. I don’t

    care if I ever use the word nigger again, but if we are becoming so childish that we

    can’t hold a rational debate on the subject without tip-toeing around it with terms

    like “the N-word,” then we are basically a living tale of “The Emporer’s new clothes.”

    Good for you for not tip-toeing.

  32. collapse expand

    I don’t know if anyone’s still reading this thread, but I have to get this out. The term I find most offensive is not “nigger,” but the term “the N-word” itself.

    I can’t stand how people handle this subject (and KUDOS to any parent who doesn’t avoid swearing in front of their kids as a policy). Here is what I know: hateful words are bad because of the hate with which they are usually imbued. The same words without the attached meaning or sentiments are just SOUNDS. And sounds do not hurt people.

    For instance, which statement is more offensive:

    -”Porch monkey is a term often used as a racial epithet.”

    or

    -”All people of African ancestry are dirty and lazy.”

    Did you double-take after reading the first sentence? Is there ANY REASON to find the first sentence more offensive than the second? Of course not.

    I am not lobbying for the widespread social acceptance of words like this, and I have no desire to run around using them all the time. I’m just sick of the double-standard pushed by society when it incessantly reminds me to reject certain words, no matter HOW hypothetical or harmless their context, while other words that usually carry equally despicable meanings are allowed to carry virtually no social stigma at all.

    For example, I just watched the Comedy Central “roast” of David Hasselhoff. They threw around the words “cock” and “dick” and “fag” and really pushed the limits with super racy jokes about the Holocaust, AIDS, and extreme sexual perversion. These jokes were meant to be as politically incorrect as possible.
    Yet the only words that were censored were “cunt” and “twat” (“nigger” was not relevent or spoken). How is this not a double standard during a program where everyone knows vulgarity will be used VERY liberally? Why is “dick” okay to be said, but “twat” isn’t? Because of the way it …sounds? Does one group of people deserve to have their sensitivities ignored and the other doesn’t?
    The answer is because over time, society has come to designate “cunt” and “twat” as being more offensive than “cock” and “dick.” But THIS is because over time, one group of people routinely CHOSE to take offense while the other routinely did not. It has nothing to do with the word itself and everything to do with the way people use it and react to it.

    My point is this: no one should let society tell them what shoud offend them. I don’t care if I ever use the word nigger again, but if we are becoming so childish that we can’t hold a rational debate on the subject without tip-toeing around it with terms like “the N-word,” then we are basically a living tale of “The Emporer’s new clothes.”

    Good for you for not tip-toeing.

  33. collapse expand

    The best biting phrase is, “Bitch with a capitol C.”

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    About Me

    I've published two novels: The Secrets of the Camera Obscura (Chronicle Books), and The Third Eye (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). I'm currently working as a journalist for AOL's Sphere. For the past three years I also spouted political opinion for AOL's Political Machine, which I also helped edit. My non-fiction has appeared in places like Men's Vogue, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, USA Today, Newsday, Travel + Leisure, GQ (Spain), and Vanity Fair (Italy). I've dabbled with short stories, publishing in Nerve and a few small journals.

    The other half of my split personality finds me playing a variety of instruments for a variety of bands, and writing songs for film soundtracks.

    See my profile »
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    Contributor Since: October 2008
    Location:The Ponzi State

    What I'm Up To

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    In the home stretch now of a screenplay version of my first novel, The Secrets of the Camera Obscura. camera-obscura1