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There are many English words that could be used to refer to something innocent that also has a common slang meaning, such as pussy, ass, bitch, etc.

For convenience' sake, should we avoid using those words altogether in formal writing? Should we perhaps use synonyms or paraphrase them, instead of using the single word?

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I'm afraid that's highly subjective. I don't think you'll find a single, unifying, acceptable answer. –  Joachim Sauer Jun 24 '11 at 7:44
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I'm pretty sure that somebody has come up with a slang, or even obscene, definition for just about any word you can think of. –  MT_Head Jun 24 '11 at 7:53
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@MT_Head: hehe, "word", right. –  Joachim Sauer Jun 24 '11 at 8:04
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This reminds me of this old CBC comedy classic: youtube.com/watch?v=W6iSk9vsK_E –  bye Jun 24 '11 at 8:50
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Word. –  MT_Head Jun 24 '11 at 8:51
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I would say, as in so many instances: it depends. The three words you singled out, pussy, ass, and bitch, have all been "taken over" by their more obscene meanings - that is, an average listener1 will either be confused, or at least temporarily distracted, if you use these words. For "pussy", I would substitute kitty; for "ass", I would use donkey; for "bitch"... unfortunately female dog is the shortest substitute I can think of.

Of course, these words still retain their original meanings, and it's silly to avoid them if you are writing for a purpose or for an audience where the original meaning is not only clear but central to the work. If you're a professional dog breeder, of course you use the word "bitch"; otherwise it becomes very hard to talk about breeding dogs. If you're writing a paper about Equus africanus, by all means call it the Wild African Ass; "donkey" would be not only inconvenient but wrong. If you are writing about the Salix discolor tree, call it a pussy willow! But in almost any other context, these words (and I'm sure we can all think of a few other, similar examples) will prove more of a distraction than a help.

That being said, people come up with obscene meanings for innocent words all the time, and if you try to avoid all words that could possibly be misinterpreted, you'll never get any writing done! Bone, for instance, is commonly used as a euphemism for "fuck" - but only a teenager will giggle if you talk about "the bones of the inner ear". Come is, of course, commonly used to mean ejaculate (both verb and noun)2, but it would be silly to avoid using such a common verb simply because some sixth-grader might be titillated.

1 At least in the United States; I can't speak for anyone else.
2 Come to think of it, ejaculate is another word you should probably avoid, even though it has a perfectly innocuous meaning as well as a sexual one.

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I think that the words where the obscene meanings have overtaken the other one are still used in their respective fields. I've heard breeders talk about a bitch without any signs of discomfort. –  Joachim Sauer Jun 24 '11 at 8:03
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@Joachim - In their respective fields, yes... but if you're not a dog breeder, you should probably find some other word for "bitch". The OP asked about "formal writing". If you are writing a paper about Equus africanus, by all means call it the African Wild Ass! But if you're writing for any other purpose or audience, those three words (and a few others) will be, at best, a distraction. Which part of it depends and average listener was unclear? –  MT_Head Jun 24 '11 at 8:39
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nothing was unclear, I didn't mean to imply that. I just thought it could be mentioned explicitly. –  Joachim Sauer Jun 24 '11 at 8:45
    
Totally agree on the Distraction part. For me, I would stick to words that doesn't at least distract me. Also for general writings such as Blogs, avoid them as much as possible. Same for written exams I guess. –  Shamim Jun 24 '11 at 8:54
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It's not the words so much as their context.

For example

Keep a firm grasp on your pole as you peak

is perfectly innocent as pole-vaulting advice, but suggestive in other contexts.

Same for pussy, bitch, and ass.

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