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I am confused: on the one hand, many of my native-speaker friends keep telling me that the f-word is very, very bad. Much worse than the s-word for example. On the other hand, I see it being used everywhere; for example, in the blogosphere, even by respectable economic blogs (e.g. http://www.zerohedge.com/article/guest-post-fuck-deficit-or-will-deficit-end-fucking-us).

Is the former intensity of the word decreasing? Is its usage becoming more acceptable in everyday language?

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I'm tempted to say "If you have to ask, you probably shouldn't be using it yourself." ;) Though you can always get away with "screw". –  user730 Aug 24 '10 at 5:28
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Track down, and listen to, Peter and Lou Berrymans' song "A chat with your mother" I won't suggest a particular recording, but probably a couple of dozen exist - on YouTube for instance. –  mickeyf Aug 24 '10 at 15:05
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Pretty fucking bad... :) –  Benjol Aug 8 '11 at 19:33
    
Please shut the hen up, you darn moron. (@CommentFlagger Go to heaven, you Bloody Baron.) –  muntoo Nov 18 '11 at 6:39

7 Answers 7

up vote 47 down vote accepted

This is a difficult question, because English is in the middle of a shift of social mores with regards to obscenities and vulgarities.

The "traditional" swear words (fuck, shit, ass, damn, etc.) have had their offensiveness gradually worn down over the past century, to the point where in many communities they're generic modifiers. Large parts of the Internet hold to this ethos. However, this shift is by no means complete or universal, as many people will still be offended by those words. Be very careful in unfamiliar situations with people you don't know, since you cannot easily predict how they'll react to your language.

At the same time, new language taboos are arising with regards to racial and some sexual epithets. You probably would not see an economics blog use the word "nigger" so casually, nor "fag", "cunt", or others. However, the social conventions regarding these are even more chaotic and context-sensitive than the conventions for the older expletives.

If you want to avoid giving offense, you should always stick to the most conservative, expletive-free register, as no one is going to be scandalized by your failure to say "fuck".

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As regards communities which use the f-word without real constraint, other communities will sometimes see it as a mark of inferiority, violence, or whatever moral deficit. So, just to emphasize JSBangs warning, be VERY, VERY careful using this word, and when in doubt, just don't. –  kitukwfyer Aug 10 '10 at 17:59
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@bobobobo, I don't understand what you're objecting to. I didn't offer any theory about why these words are offensive, so I don't see what your comment has to do with my answer. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 13 '11 at 19:37
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@bobobobo: I agree with JSBangs. There are a lot of people around the world that could really care less about the word "nigger". I think it's important to make them aware of how bad it can be here in the States. Also, Comedy Central stopped censoring "nigger" and "nigga" for Chappelle Show (and it wasn't even after hours at the time) a few years back, but they kept censoring "fuck". If vonjd wasn't from the states, and then came here and went by that theory, he'd probably end up beaten in an alley in no time at all. I'd rather see them informed than dead b/c I didn't want to say "the n-word". –  rownage Jan 14 '11 at 19:29
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Grammar nazi: could really care less should be really couldn't care less –  mplungjan Feb 11 '11 at 19:16
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I agree 100% that you should not say it if in any doubt. In fact, if you never say even in the company of people who use it all the time they won't notice, whereas the opposite is definitely not true. –  tinyd Nov 18 '11 at 11:20

In British English as other answers have stated, it mostly depends on context; I would not use the word in front of my mother, for instance.

However it also depends on how it is used. If for instance I saw something shocking such as a road accident and said “Fucking Hell!”, few people would be offended.

But if I used it at someone, such as saying “Fuck you”, I would be being very offensive indeed.

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There is good evidence that "bad language" is stored in a separate part of the brain: witness the case of the deaf man with Tourettes syndrome who swears in ASL. And swear words in foreign languages don't set off the same triggers in the brain, so it's very hard to judge how bad they are in context. Foreign language learners should generally avoid swearing until someone else has done so first. That's my advice.

The actual question, How bad is the F-word? has a very context-dependent answer.

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My mother needs to learn to take your advice re: only swearing if someone else has done so first. :/ –  Marthaª Oct 19 '10 at 20:27
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I don't necessarily agree that you can swear if someone else has done so first. If that person is (or believes themselves to be) your social or professional superior, he or she may think it's okay to use whatever language he or she likes around you, but may not appreciate you doing the same. (Unfair but true.) –  Brennan Vincent Jun 2 '11 at 5:20
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@BrennanVincent, TRiG didn't say you should swear if someone else has done so first, but that you shouldn't swear unless someone else has started it. In other words, letting somebody else introduce the bad words is a necessary condition, but it may not be sufficient. –  Marthaª Sep 21 '12 at 14:41

It used to be very bad, and because of this it has been overused lately, eroding it's superlative offensive status.

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Depending on the circumstances and the company it varies between shocking (my Bridge Club) and background noise (the Steelworks), a former colleague of mine being the record holder for the most uses in one sentence (21).

See also Field-Marshal Slim's quotation of his driver reporting that the car was unserviceable..."The fucking fucker's fucked."

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It seems that the FCC's 7-dirty-word rule has recently been overturned in some degree, a sign of the times:

Jul 22nd, 2010 NEW YORK CITY—Noting that, "we face a media landscape that would have been almost unrecognizable in 1978," the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has struck down attempts by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate so-called "fleeting expletives" in radio and TV broadcasts...

read article (warning: expletive ahead)

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This question is about a "bad word" (I can't even write it publicly!) . . . unless it's explicit images no need for a warning! –  tooshel Aug 12 '10 at 23:41
    
The main issue there isn't the words getting less bad, its that cable-only channels aren't regulated by the FCC, and thus don't have those rules. Considering pretty much nobody gets their TV broadcast over FCC-regulated frequencies any more, constraining the very few channels that continue to do so is starting to seem more and more silly. –  T.E.D. Aug 3 '12 at 14:22

Relative to where and who? I wouldn't use the f word as a synonym for "very" in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the Marines it's just another word.

Cusswords are interesting neurologically, they appear to be managed by a different part of the brain than the part that is in charge of ordinary speech. So if the f-word really did become an ordinary word, (I think the Proto-Indo-European word was something mundane like "to strike"), it would need to be replaced by some other word.

More likely, a taboo word would disappear from use than convert to the stock of ordinary words.

Seeing the F word on the internet probably doesn't mean it is acceptable, the internet is the lawless wild west.

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"PIE"? [ ](google.com) –  Dennis Williamson Aug 12 '10 at 21:25
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Re: whom-- That's prescriptive grammar, also known as conlanging or language revival since that is a Old/Middle English rule. I'll use whom when we bring back the þ and the ð Citation: books.google.com/… –  MatthewMartin Aug 27 '10 at 17:29
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There was a Mythbusters episode where they showed that yelling cuss words made people better able to withstand pain than yelling ordinary words. –  Marthaª Oct 19 '10 at 20:22
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Tourette's syndrome is clear indication that the brain processes swear words differently, even in signed languages. –  TRiG Dec 8 '10 at 2:18
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@Matthew: ðat sounds like a challenge! –  Mitch Apr 29 '11 at 18:15

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