What Makes A Word Bad?

by: Austin Duncan (Google+ and Website) and based on a video by Michael Stevens of VSauce.


When you make a phone call to customer service at a company or happen to hear the recording saying “to ensure customer service, your phone call may be monitored or recorded,” they mean it. Seriously. Marchex studied and analyzed over 600,000 recorded phone conversations that Americans made to business in the United States. Well according to their study, residents of Ohio were the most likely to use curse words during their conversations….specifically the “A-word” “F-word” and “S-word.” People that live in Washington state however, were the least likely. (Other states with residents who were deemed the “least likely to curse” – were: Massachusetts (2nd), Arizone (3rd), Texas (4th), and Virginia (5th)).
Pretty interesting stuff.

Michael Stevens (Stevens) takes this topic further by asking,

What makes a bad word bad?


What Makes a Bad Word Bad?

Be careful even asking this question because if you want to get down to the real etymology of the word “bad,” the word itself can be considered a “bad word.” For those of you who didn’t click on the link I placed on “etymology,” it began back in Old English as a derogatory term for an effeminate man. Also, according to Michael Stevens:

Eighty percent of swear words overheard in public in 1986, 1997, and 2006, were essentially the same. One-third of all counts included the top two: The “F-word” and the “S-word.”

He goes on to say:

Slate’s brilliant Lexicon Valley podcast reported that these ten words make up about 0.7% of the average english speakers daily vocabulary. Which means (that) socially unacceptable words are used almost as often as socially descriptive words. First person plural pronouns account for about 1% of the words we say everyday.

To go on with the use of “bad words” in society, when you’re watching television and someone says a bad word, censors cover up the word you hear with a 1 kilohertz sine wave. Interestingly enough, English and Japanese speaking countries commonly use the famous bleep, but it would be rare to hear it in countries that speak Spanish, French, German, Dutch, Italian or Polish. This shows the varying attitudes that countries display towards swearing–some are just unlikely to swear in front of a camera, and some countries are just unwilling to censor. When bad words are written by using different symbols and markings (e.g. B!%*#), it’s called a grawlix. Michael Stevens says:

They (grawlixes) were named by Mort Walker in his seminal “The Lexicon of Comicana.” He names a lot of things but most of them show stuff, they don’t hide stuff. (So) why the need to hide bad words, especially if we all pretty much know what’s being said?

Why We Hide Bad Words

Obviously there’s not a single, exact reason that certain words are bad. In his talk about five different types of swearing, Steven Pinker says that some words are meant to be bad. They are bad on purpose, meaning that they were created to be used with the specific intent to hurt others. Pinker calls this type of swearing “Abusive swearing.” More specifically, abusive swearing is meant to marginalize, alienate, or harm others. Now, if the person you are swearing abusively towards is God, that would be called, according to Pinker, “Supernatural swearing.” This type of swearing was particularly frowned upon and was considered taboo in Victorian times. Again, I’m going to quote Michael Stevens here as he explains more detail about how society viewed supernatural swearing in Victorian times. He says:

It was believed that casually or vainly referring to God would physically injure God himself, literally. So, at the time, people were forced to come up with euphemisms like “zounds” and “gadzooks” which originally meant “God’s Wounds (zounds)” and “God’s Hooks (gadzooks)” referring to the nails driven through the hands of Jesus.

Historically, we have derived bad words from things that have scared us, specifically meaning things that we considered dangerous, stronger, or mercurial (death, disease, sex, STDs, etc.). Thusly, words that described those things became gross and therefore bad in and of themselves and were almost wrong to speak. This doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that all words that described something gross or anything like that are bad. Which now leads us into Pinker’s second type of swearing:

Emphatic Swearing

This type of swearing is where bad words become practical. These types of words are words that you wouldn’t typically use in everyday conversation,

…but when you really want to convey that your current emotions matter more to you than proper social conduct, you can use them.

I’m sure that everyone reading this knows of someone or has heard someone using this type of swearing. It seems, in my opinion, that this type of swearing is by far the most popular of American society. It’s the type of swearing you use when you become heated, indignant, or more casually–pissed, but enough about that. You get it. On to Pinker’s third type of swearing:


euphemism: a nice and socially acceptable word that helps you verbally convey something unpleasant, while simultaneously letting your audience know that you understand it’s unpleasant and that you want to respect that. As a professional you wouldn’t say s#!%, you might say defecate.  Stevens says:

On the other hand, if you really want to drive home just how unpleasant the experience was, dysphemisms can help out a lot. It wasn’t a bag of canine defecation you found on your front porch, it was a s#!% bag of hot dog s#!%.

Both defecate and s#!% refer to pretty much the same thing, but they have far different levels of social acceptability. That can actually be quite helpful to know. It means that your choice of words not only allow you to refer to things in the world around you, but also convey how you feel about those things.  If all words were equally socially acceptable, then we would have to come up with new, worse words to say, so that the power of language wouldn’t become watered down.

When it comes to two words of different social acceptance, who decides which one’s good and which one’s bad? Well historically, many of the bad words we use today are the result of class differences. In medieval England, the lower class Saxons spoke a Germanic tongue, while the upper class Normans spoke a language related to French and Latin. English, as we know it today, contains many consequences of their differences.

Because the lower-class Saxons worked with animals, we get animal names (chicken, cow, deer, pig, sheep). The upper-class Normans only ate the animals, and thus we get names for the meat (poultry, beef, venison, pork, mutton). Swear words that we know today have similar roots. Defecation stems from the language used by more upper-class citizens: Latin. S#!% comes from Germanic roots. The next to last of Pinker’s categories of swearing is:

Idiomatic Swearing

In this case, nothing is emphasized, but is instead an easygoing/casual type of swearing. It shows that an atmosphere is regarded as casual. This is the kind of swearing that insecure or “popular” teenagers do to show how cool they are. Pinker’s last category:

Cathartic Swearing

Imagine this, I’m going to use Michael Stevens again here, because he can explain this far better than I would be able to. He says:

It (cathartic swearing) gives us lalochezia, the medical term for the relief swearing provides when you’re in pain.

If you’re interested to know a bit more about this, or to even see it in action, I recommend watching this Mythbuster’s clip about cathartic swearing. Whenever someone swears, it involves different regions in the brain than regular vocabulary. This could be an explanation about why people with aphasia caused by brain damage struggle to build every day words, but can swear as if it’s nothing. Also people with coprolalia can construct regular language just fine, but involuntarily swear at random times. According to research, swearing might be centralized in the brain’s limbic system along with emotions. Many animals make noises when in pain or when they’re threatened. In humans, bad words function similarly. Stevens says:

Their (bad words’) taboo-ness makes them special. People wouldn’t use (bad words) otherwise, so they are great alarms.

If you look at the world around you today, and at the words people use in the different situations we’ve been discussing, you may notice that swearing is changing. By this I mean that some bad words are being used more often than others, and as a result our reaction to them changes as well. George Carlin listed seven words that you could never say on television. Of those seven words, 22 of them are sent out on Twitter every second.

We’ve covered the history of swearing, what it means in our society, how people react to it, and even how it relates to our emotions and where it is centralized in the brain, but what will swearing look like in the future?

Swearing in the Future

It would be a little ignorant to say that swearing will go away altogether, because that most likely will not happen. As we’ve discussed, it’s too useful. However, the specific words that we consider to be bad could/possible/will likely change. Stevens says:

History has shown that as disease becomes less scary, and sex and the supernatural more personal, words related to them become less taboo, and more common; whereas words that were common in the past are increasingly unpleasant. Perhaps in the future, spurred not by runaway political correctness, but by wider knowledge, words like schizo, mental, aspy, or even depressed will take the swear stage.

John McWhorter states that words centered around class and words centered around the gap between opportunity and disadvantage will become taboo. Words and phrases like “salt of the earth,” “trash,” “chav,” “pokey,” “urban,” could become curse words. When a 14 year old by the name of McKay Hatch started a “no cussing club” at his school, he became the target of online jokes for being lame or something. Probably by the same kids who use idiomatic swearing. Although it does raise an issue of free speech. You can read about it in the link provided. Obviously though, people do care about this stuff. A lot. It raises the question of

Is it censorship to tell us what we can and can not say, or is it a safety seal ensuring different dysphemisms don’t get worn down to a quotidian bluntness like every other word? Or is the badness of bad words a boundary? A moving boundary of what we reject, sometimes arbitrary, sometimes irrational, but always moving in the direction of acceptance–moving forward. (Stevens)

Concepts such as crime and inequality have always existed (ever since they could). When N.W.A. released the single F**K THA POLICE, the FBI released a statement against the song. The statement released by the FBI was the only time up until then, and since then that the FBI has ever issued or said anything about a work of art (if you could call an N.W.A. song “art”). With all this said though, bad words do have power.

If you want to push for change, you’ll need to something to push. If everything’s fine, nothing’s cool. So bad words are the precipitate of a larger reaction: the process of us slowly becoming what we want to become. That’s some deep s#!%.

Thank you for reading,


Austin Duncan, Author

Sources are present in the links found throughout this article. The concept of this entire post and its content is highly borrowed from Michael Stevens from VSauce. Look him and his channel up, it’s really interesting.



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