A Few Words On Four Letter Words


Caution: The Following Article Contains Words That Some May Find Offensive .

I received a couple of emails recently berating me for using ‘dirty’ words on my blog. I’ve even been told that using ‘bad’ words indicates that I must have a poor command of the language, that my vocabulary is lax. To those charges I must respond:

What a load of shit. First, there are no ‘dirty’ or ‘bad’ words. There are simply words. Let’s take a look at a few four letter words.

Damn – Currently this is one of the least offensive of the four letter words. If you follow its origins all the way back to the Latin you’ll find it is related to damnum, which means damage, loss or hurt, and that it is related to daps, a sacrificial meal, which is most likely related to an ancient religious term.

Not very powerful if you use it while doing the pee pee dance after you stub your toe, as in “damn, damn damn, I think it’s broken”. But try it as a curse. “Damn you and your foul progeny”! Etymology from Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology .

Shit – Perhaps seen as a little more offensive than damn but there’s no off-color words in its pedigree. Shit:-ORIGIN Old English scitte ‘diarrhoea’, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch schijten, German scheissen (verb) From the OED. Forget that Ship High In Transit acronym origin, that’s just another form of shit, we call it bullshit .

Hell – Another mild word that’s only insulting to those that you tell to go there. Often used to indicate exasperation. As in ‘Ah hell, the Cubs lost again’.

Bitch – (yeah, yeah, there’s five letters, Stuart was already bitching about that ;)) From the Old English, cognate with and perhaps borrowed from, A Scandinavian word such as Old Icelandic bikkja, female dog, or Old Danish bikke. No one blinks if you use it to mean ‘complain’. Call a woman a bitch and all hell breaks loose. Must be the link to female dog eh? Vixen oddly enough, is often seen as mildly flattering. Etymology from Barnhart’s Concise Dictionary of Etymology

Fuck Sorry, I can’t find a consensus on the etymology of the word ‘fuck’. The best I can do is mention that the Middle English fucken means ‘to strike’. It does not come from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Sorry folks, but acronyms just weren’t used much back when the word was first being used.

This word is often seen as offensive, especially in the U.S. Might be that Puritan background eh? As far as words go, fuck is a workhouse, as evidenced by the following piece by someone well versed in the versatility of the word;

* Noun: I don’t give a fuck.
* Adjective: Jennifer is organizing the fucking event.
* Verb: Don’t fuck it up.
* Transitive verb: Paul fucked Jennifer.
* Intransitive verb: Jennifer fucks.
* Part of an adverb: Jennifer organizes too fucking much.
* Adverb enhancing an adjective: Jennifer is fucking amazing.
* Part of a word: Fanfuckingtastic! Absofuckinglutely infuckingcredible!

Here are some examples of how the word fuck can be used.

* Aggression: Don’t fuck with me.
* Amazement: Infuckingcredible!
* Assurance: Absofuckinglutely.
* Difficulty: I’m having a fuck of a time with this.
* Disagreement: Fuck you!
* Dismay: Fuck it.
* Dismissal: Fuck off.
* Fraud: I got fucked on that deal.
* Incompetence: What a fuckup.
* Inquiry: What the fuck?
* Pleasure: Fanfuckingtastic!
* Satisfaction: Fucking “A” man!
* Trouble: Now I’m fucked.

To those that say use of four letter words is proof of poor command of the language, I must again say, bullshit. Ever heard a non-native speaker curse incorrectly? Or a young child that’s just learning how to swear? The misuse is often amusing. ‘Go to bitchy hell’. The BBC’s examination of offensive words was interesting as well;

David Crystal says that no two taboo words are used in exactly the same the way grammatically:

“Damn, for example, cannot be used with a preceding personal pronoun (*You damn!) and arse cannot be followed by one (*Arse you!); fart cannot be followed by off or it; bugger, however, can be used in all four of these contexts.”

It’s also interesting to note that there’s one rule of grammar only used with swear words (or their euphemisms). There’s a knack to inserting a swear word into a word or phrase – and it’s something you don’t do with other words. Consider:

Abso-bloody-lutely! vs Ab-bloody-solutely!

What the frig are you doing here? vs What are you doing the frig here?

Where’s my sodding car? vs Where’s sodding my car?

Can four letter words be overused? Of course, and when they are, they lose their effectiveness. Sometimes though, there’s no substitute for them. Bang your thumb with a hammer? Does screaming ‘french fries’ have the same impact? Swear words are a useful part of the language. They exist in every language and the good ones have staying power. They also save time.

When your buddy laments that he ‘forgot to pay his taxes for the last three years’ you can properly inform him of his duty as a citizen and you can remind him of the severe legal penalties that exist for not giving the IRS their due, or you can just say, ‘Dude, you’re fucked’.


  1. Psst – bitch is not a four letter word :)

    And there was time when there were three words that could not be used on Australian television.




    My how times have changed.

  2. DG

    I know, I just can’t find better words to describe them.

    I still think ‘poo’ and ‘poop’ sound much worse than shit.

  3. Having changed many a baby’s nappy in my time none of them quite describe the reality :)

  4. I always thought that the US was the only place that found Hell to be an offensive term, or at least one that should be avoided.

    I have certainly never come across anyone that considered it to be a ‘bad’ word in Britain.

  5. >To those that say use of four letter words is proof of poor command of the language, I must again say, bullshit. Ever heard a non-native speaker curse incorrectly?

    Now that is pretty interesting and something I never thought of before.

  6. DG

    When I was a kid I was taught that it was okay to say hell, but telling someone to go there was forbidden.

    Geography plays a role in the determination of what words are ‘proper’ swear words though. Is ‘bloody’ considered a swear word in the U.K.? What about sod? As in sod off?

    Some British swear words are seen as quaint in the U.S. It’s not surprising to hear a child of 9 or 10 call another friend a wanker, and it is doubtful they know the meaning. ‘Freaking’ is used often by children as well. That freaking game is cool. While ‘fricking’ or ‘frigging’ is used by adults that don’t want to say ‘fucking’. My friggin’ car won’t start.


    There’s a guy that runs a store near where I live that ends nearly every sentence with ‘goddamn’. More often than not, it sounds odd to the ear.

    “It’s cold today, goddamn”, might sound okay.

    “Thank you, goddamn” and “Have a nice day, goddamn” certainly don’t. Even worse is his greeting. ‘Hello, goddamn”.

    To those of you that have asked what this post could possibly have to do with search or marketing, ask yourself how much spam could be identified simply by identifying emails which contain nonsensical paragraphs of text. What about comment spam? Scraper sites?

  7. You might enjoy this movie DG:

    I saw it on netflix… there they call it F**K. Try doing a search for that on google.

  8. vince

    You missed one that has expanded in recent years. Cunt, is much higher on the scale than fuck/ bitch/damn/hell or shit. It tends also to be wielded more as a sabre than a claymore. while it tends to be gender specific, is used with equal aplomb by both.

  9. DG

    If I told you there used to be a street in London named Gropecuntelane, would you believe me? Unfortunately, the etymology of the word is boring, it has always meant ‘female genitalia’ though now, that meaning may have been expanded a bit.

    No truth to the rumor about ‘can’t understand normal thinking’.

  10. DG

    Thanks for the link Werty, Should be watching it Wednesday.

  11. I agree. If you are not intentionally making anyone feel bad, it is not offensive, it is merely your habbit.

    I know this monkeys. It means for things which is not proper, don’t look. For things which is not proper, don’t listen. For things which is not proper, don’t say. It is a Chinese phillosophy.

  12. I always heard FUCK meant Fornicate Under Consent of the King and had something to do with having to ask permission from the king in order to have sex with a woman without being married. Of course, who knows these days… It’s amazing how history gets lost.

  13. chris

    I’ve known the mysterious origins of “fuck” and that the acronym was BS for a while.

    I’ve never read the etymology of “damn” before.

    No one ever remembers to include “cunt” in these type of explorations.

  14. DG

    Most likely ‘cunt’ comes from the Germanic root kunton which means ‘female genitalia’. The word first appears around 1225 in a list of London street names. Gropecuntelane

  15. Despite what you may personally believe, many people perceive the use of obscenities as a sign of a limited vocabulary. If you don’t mind people perceiving you that way then more power to you.

  16. Many people have also have a huge stick up their arse that should be removed with extreme prejudice. This argument has been going on for decades and there are still priggish twits that all but wet themselves when someone says fuck. I have a better vocabulary than anyone I know (and get comments on it good/bad routinely) and I still choose to use ‘bad’ words or ‘curse’ words for emphasis.

    For example: “Some people are just god-damned evil” to emphasize just -how- evil I mean.

    Great article! Thanks!

  17. Interesting read. I guess one learns something everyday! I have to say>>> that I agree with DG in that “poo” or “poop” does not sum it up. The only word to describe it is SHIT!!!

  18. Swearing is part of our language & should be treated as such..
    Watching the TV show, deadwood, i am now amazed @ the cleverness such words can be used in arguments…

    cocksuckers! lol :)

  19. vince

    Crap works, as in that’s crap (shit), or OH crap. A bit lower on the scale than SHIT.
    Hammer test; hit thumb = fuck, with repetitions depending on the strength of the wallop.
    Hit nail miss and graze knuckles = cunt
    Hit a window = shit.
    Hit a nail but slip = bitch.
    Miss the nail = crap.

    Should all of the above happen, some loss of expression is to be expected.
    Is gropecuntelane near Dotheboyshall ?.

  20. imtheotherdave

    Great blog. Glad somebody has fianlly dealt with this issue. I like to swear in my blogs too, I feel it conveys my true feelings more astutely. I don’t see why bloggers need to censor their work for a largely adult readership.


  21. From what I was told, FUCK was an acronym (I spelled that wrong) from mid-evel time meaning Fornication Under Concent of the King. (I need spell check).

  22. Obscene words are different from other words in that their use wields a certain amount of descriptive power, hence the scale of cursing (Fuck being more powerful than damn). Granted this scale is culturally based and controlled. It seems to me that they can be overused and therefore robbed of their power.

  23. bionerd

    Personally, I agree with you about almost everything. Only thing is about Bitch; it’s not just an insult, it’s specifically a sexist one when used towards somebody. Same as Cunt. Only time you’d call a guy that is if you want them to bend over for ya. When you insult someone with their sex in mind, that defines them as by their sex, and believe it or not, a lot of people have to deal with that shit on a daily basis.

  24. DG

    >>it’s specifically a sexist one

    Is it? I think usage has changed considerably. I’ve heard women refer to their female friends as bitches,

    “She’s my favorite bitch. she’s my best bitch”. etc.

    I’ve heard guys use it in reference to other guys that seemed to complain to much.

    “Stop being such a bitch’.

    Usage and absolutes are rarely compatible.

  25. Every word has a purpose – or well, it should have a purpose.

    I think you can get across any point without ‘cursing’. At the same time, I think it is possible to get a point across more clearly by cursing :)

    Then again, this all goes back to morality and the constant push by certain people to cram it down your throat. After all, ‘fuck’ makes my virgin-ears bleed.

  26. I’m all for the expressive power of a well-used swear word in the same way I’m all for a well-placed violation of standard grammar. I enjoyed this post and the BBC citation especially!

  27. Hi I swear at myself all the time and, Sometimes at others, But with children now, i try and measure my use.

    I guess it is a release, I must say i feel great after blasting someone, and as long as you can take it back, and not loose sight that is is only words, your half way home,

    Words are powerful tools, each in combination gives either pleasure – pain- wonderment or can easily awaken senses,

    “Sour Lemon”

    makes my mouth go watery and i can smell it, and its only a word or 2.

    you f* ing sour lemon, dosent

    I have heard the first use came from the Irish courts and was for “felonious use of carnal knowledge” and came to England in the late 16th century,
    So, Shakespeare himself most probably shortened it to its current use,

    Kindest F*ing regards

  28. the last 4 letter words have to biggest number of use a word ever has ever!! (i hope my sentence makes sense..)

  29. urgh.. when i wrote “to” above, i meant to write “the”. Pardon me =/

  30. naom

    thanks DG. I´m a English teacher and if there is something students are always eager to learn, that is slang. So now I´m trying to find the way to teach four-letters words in class without being a fucking taecher myself! your comments are of great value

  31. naom

    i should star by teaching the use oof definite article a or an , don´t you think…

  32. Etoilecri

    Though I heartily agree that cursing can be used correctly, being in high school myself I encounter all too often my friends don’t know how to use it, especially the word fuck.
    They say it in between every other word and to be truthful it is annoying as fuck.

  33. Annie

    A largely adult audience. How comforting coming from a twelve year old (me). Don’t worry, not to brag or anything but I’m mature for my age and I prefer adults to children. No worries. Though the etymology really is interesting. You have to be pretty bored to be able to find these things. Now that you look at it it makes sense. There is a obvious scale and I find the examples quite hilarious. In middle school, words go flying. They bounce off the walls. Especially when somebody’s hyper. I only use damn or damn it or dammit or any variation thereof, others not that much. I really should be going to sleep. Should.

  34. wpolscemamymocneseo

    What cell phone browser is this website page optimized for Internet explorer?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: