What Makes a Word Into a Bad Word?

I still don’t understand the hang-up with “bad words” – who said they were bad? Were they written to be inherently bad, or did someone merely say they were bad? I’m confused, so I had to ask some friends what they think.

They can’t be that bad if they are in the dictionary – Outsanity

What the fucking shit are you trying say, dammit? – Akiva Moskovitz

bad words are generally common words which come to be associated with ideas, groups, and behaviors considered taboo or unclean at some time by someone. for example, "faggot" means kindling (as in, material to start a fire), but came to be a bad word due to a redefinition and the taboo nature of homosexuality in the context of certain societies. edit: i just had a "am i *really* that dorky" moment. – idnan

I remember I was punished in first grade for dropping the f-bomb. So, my first grade teacher said they were bad. But, generally, there are words that turn off some people in your potential audience. If you’re OK with losing them, go ahead and say them. By the way, our media and government has banned certain speech on our commercial media. Partly to avoid losing audience and partly because government gets pressure whenever, say, 5% of people get pissed off enough to call a Senator. – Robert Scoble

akiva – ROTFLMAO. @idnan – I understand the use of words in a negative context, but that wasn’t my quandary (rather, I don’t know why people call them "bad words"). @scoble – You used the f-bomb in the first grade? I have a whole new respect for you, my man. – l0ckergn0me

words only have the power that society gives them. If everyone decided ‘nutfreak’ was awful, then … it would suddenly be bad. – AJ Kohn

No word is bad if it can convey a thought. If it can’t, it’s useless, not bad. Profanity conveys information just as well as non-profane words. – Jack Carlson

I think the touchstone for words that are bad are that they are hurtful. – Victor Ryden

George Carlin talked about this at length, I think. It’s another superstition. Just like my Catholic friend in High School was convinced that certain physical objects, like Ouija boards and pentagrams were "bad." – Tad Donaghe

It is kind of a double edged sword. It makes no sense at all to my why words would be taboo, especially as Jack said words that convey information/thought. On the other hand if they weren’t considered "bad" then they wouldn’t be as impactful or useful. – Joe Pierce

Chris: my parents still laugh about that. The teacher called them, forced them to make me apologize to the class. So, what did I do? I dropped the f-bomb again. But this time not to one kid, but to the whole class. – Robert Scoble

It’s all a matter of context. Nothing in of itself is inherently bad. It’s how it’s used and the effects of the use. We don’t try to shield our kid from "bad words" because it’s silly. But we do tell him those words only have power if he lets them. And we caution him that other people don’t really understand that so he needs to be careful how he uses them. – Lindsay Donaghe

scobel that’s awesome, I was expelled from catholic school in first grade for dropping the f-bomb – Bryan Thatcher via twhirl

Why do I try to refrain from using such words on my blog? Well, lots of companies will block your blog if you trigger certain words. I still remember getting an Apple II and using certain words with the spell checker my dad bought. It wouldn’t correct the spelling, but, rather, said "you should clean out your mouth." – Robert Scoble

Chris – Robert dropped the f-bomb because his teacher took away his oregon trail on the apple IIe 😛 – i always tried to cross the river btw – Allen Stern

There are two meanings to every word. The meaning to the speaker, and the meaning to the listener. – Jennifer

Jennifer – one of my mentors always said – it’s not reality that’s important, it’s the perception that is. – Allen Stern

I’m pretty sure when Scobez was in first grade they were still using chalk on slate boards. 😛 😀 – Tad Donaghe

Don’t they still use chalk on slate boards in school then? Seriously, don’t they? – Ian May

I meant on their desks instead of paper and pencil. – Tad Donaghe

Ian, these days when kids drop the f-bombs in class, and get caught, they’re writing their lines on a whiteboard with a marker. – Pete Delucchi

Wow, I completely forgot about Oregon Trail up until right now – Nicholas Molnar via twhirl

Every computer that I’ve ever owned that was capable of it has been through at least one play through of Oregon Trail. – Joe Pierce

In all seriousness, I avoid curse words because I feel the more sparingly they’re used, the more effective they are. My wife knows that when I drop the f-bomb, I am truly pissed (unless I’m using curse words for comedic effect, of course). If I cursed constantly, as I used to do, they’d become ignorable, ineffective background noise. – Akiva Moskovitz

They were tagged long ago as terms not to be used to describe something. Theory would be there would be something unspeakable that was decided upon – Chris via twhirl

Jesus, damn right! – James Tenniswood

idnan… ^_^. They are only bad words because some group of people decided that they are offensive. You know, the same can be said for the "good" words. A group of people decided these are okay, those are not. – Yolanda

Yolanda, that just points to the fact that people today don’t understand even the concept of vulgarity. We live in an everything-is-permissible society (in the West) because many people reject the notion of arbitrary or abstract rules. For example, take 100 people who have no problem illegally downloading music and then put them in front of a record store and tell them to go shoplift a CD or two and see how many will do it. They reject the abstract consequence but are afraid of the physical one. – Akiva Moskovitz

I’ve become desensitized to my potty mouth. – Yolanda

yolanda of course. communication is a necessarily collaborative effort. communal decision (and often submission) is how languages are created and how they change, how conventions are adopted by a society and rejected. – idnan

F-U-C-K = Fornication under the consent of King :)- IMHO, thats the how the the common verb come along :)- – Peter Dawson

Yolanda, for some reason the phrase ‘potty mouth’ is one of the most subtlety amusing ones for me. – Akiva Moskovitz

In Scotland people use certain "bad words" a lot but not in any "bad" sense – more to put more emphasis on what they’re saying. You must watch this for a laugh on swearing – http://tinyurl.com/56s5zsSteven via twhirl

What do you think? What makes a word into a ‘bad’ word? How bad is too bad when it comes to normal, everyday conversation? Where do you draw the line when writing in a public space, such as your blog? Let’s hear what you have to say.

30 thoughts on “What Makes a Word Into a Bad Word?”

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  3. Something I forgot to mention in the FF conversation is the 2005 documentary “Fuck” I thought it took a good look at the subject. As a bonus it was also entertaining which is refreshing for a documentary.

    I used to try to keep it clean on my blog but when I really thought about it I couldn’t come up with a good reason why. With other public spaces I try to keep it to the style I would use if I were addressing these people in person. Which sadly means sometimes I can’t use some very useful words.

  4. A Word becomes a swear word when it isnt used very much. For example **** is used alot in my vocabulary. So i use it more as an expression of my feelings instead of a really terrible word. Words that I use less often then become swear words. Like. **** and such.

  5. No disrespect to you Chris, but I find it slightly amusing that the person with the most tyranical and sometimes downright rude mods on the internet is the one bringing this question up.

  6. Self-Admittedly I’ve a pirate’s tongue,but as you age you learn that some people just don’t know how to take that and you “adjust” your vocabulary to fit those people when they’re around unless you just plain don’t give a fun.

  7. Did you know SHIT really was a abbreviation of “Ship High In Transit.” They used this when they were shipping manure over seas for fertilizer so that they gasses wouldn’t build up. I would have to guess it became a bad word b/c poop or manure just isn’t pleasant. Also they began to just call it what the box said: S.H.I.T. So i think that is were we get that word from.

  8. I read somewhere, I think on howstuffworks.com that when we hear a swear or taboo word, the part of our brain that processes and responds to emotion flicks on instead of the usual language part. That’s why ‘bad’ words can be very offensive – they provoke an emotional response, and that can easily make people uncomfortable. I think swear words can be very useful for conveying emotion – however since many swear words like f u c k provoke a very negative response of anger or frustration, overusing them can be funny to some people and uncomfortable to others – probably based on their upbringing and their associations with the word.

    If you have a popular blog/podcast and get a lot of negative feedback on your swearing, then it’s time to cut back and try and find that social ‘normal’ amount of swearing to try to appeal to a wider audience – if that’s what you want

  9. In my opinion,
    A word isn’t bad until it has a negative influence you are directing the language at. If it’s used in a upbeat positive way i don’t think it should make such a big deal. I also think it’s a bad word if it intentionally ruins someone credibility or personal life.

  10. Too many words are being labeled as “Bad Words”

    We started saying “Shit.” It offended people, so we began saying “Shoot.” That offended people because it sounded too close to “Shit.” So, we started saying “Crap.” That was deemed bad too, so we started saying “Crud.” Now, I’ve heard people bitching about “Crud” too!

    Where do we draw the line?

  11. I think a profane word is one that is highly offensive to a group of people, because crap, shoot, and $hitt all mean the same thing. it is in which company you pronounce your language to. for example, in Oromo it is highly offensive to speak the names of your in laws, this is called laguu. In a professional environment you could be potentially fired for saying any slew of words you wouldn’t say around your grandma, whereas in the teenage community you would be shunned for not liking such words.

  12. Lindsay is mostly correct. In and of itself, a word cannot be bad or good. When spoken it is a sound, when written, a group of letters (symbols) we read which stand for the sound. A sound or an arrangement of symbols cannot have intent – good, bad or otherwise. It is all in how and when it is used – context. The F. word can be used when you smash your finger with a hammer, when LaBron drives and dunks, when you nearly crash your car, or when your in the throws of lovemaking . . etc. It all has to do with who you are with and what is not only the implied meaning, but the received meaning. There are no bad words – no good words either.

  13. shady- a slang word , used to defame a persons reputation by associating them as ( a liar and dishonest ) . Yes , it is a bad word .

  14. Just because people think of them as bad. In 4th grade i screamed “Screw you!” at somebody when i was angry, and got a week of detention, and they knew i had said screw, not fuck, or any other word that could have been confused with screw.

  15. it cant be that bad iif its used everyday my grandfather got mad at me because i youtube video said shit then he goes downstairs to watch a baseball game and says shit like 30 times

  16. Fuck & Shit are always been bad words. But, who & when did they become bad? I think its mainly from TV. That’s Wack!  I didn’t know that meant when I was younger. After hearing it from TV & my friends, I knew what it meant.
    If we use profanity all the time. After a while it won’t be bad anymore.

  17. I see absolutely nothing wrong with swear words themselves! They are only words! It is the context that matters! “Bitch” is a swear word because it is considered offensive but why aren’t words like idiot, twit, retard and fool swears? Also, “fuck” is a swear because it is a sexual act but why isn’t “bang” a swear?

  18. Basically I agree with what a number of people have already said here. Swear words are bad only because sometime somebody had this power to proclaim them to be so. Also, their meaning depends on context, bitch or gay…
    In addition, I am really glad we have those words as they help us to express our negative emotions without being physically violent, excluding extreme situations. With those “bad” words, subconsciously, we get rid of a load of emotions and thus feel a bit better, less frustrated.
    Though, the situation changes, as also was already said, when we start to overuse those words, for example when talking to children, it is simply inappropriate. But then, come to think of it, saying it is inappropriate makes those words bad, and therefore, helps expressing our thoughts and emotions.

  19. Victor Ryden- why do we give a single ‘bad word’ hurt us? Future generations will be offended by pig and cow the way we are going!

  20. The idea of bad words doesn’t make sense I have cussed in class cause it’s what I wrote down and I was called randomly to read mine out load. yet I believe a word that is known as profanity is to be nothing but words. I say its only a bad word if used to be used to be offensive towards others.

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