For the past twenty years I've heard people use the adjective "fucking" more often than ever before in the US: in real life, in movies and on TV. Sentences like "You fucking idiot." I've also heard the word being used as an adverb. My question is: how acceptable is it in informal conversation, at work, among friends, talking to a stranger, etc. Does anyone get shocked if you use it these days? Whatever your answer, can you say whether it applies to England and other English speaking countries?

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    For one, most utterers do not consider its lexical significance while using it -- it's essentially a 'filler' with no semantic contribution to the narrative. Today, its original meaning is only incidental, so much so I wonder if any American (esp., the younger lot) ever uses it in the copulatory sense at all. This is a phenomenon of language and not specific to English/ American. Other cultures may have other phrases.
    – Kris
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 11:30
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    Please give questions fitting, descriptive titles (what did you even mean by “something formerly considered language”?), and please don't use all-caps—shouting is not polite! Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 11:31
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    It all depends . . .. Having been brought up in a non-swearing household, I personally am not comfortable with the expression in any situation, informal or otherwise. Is the use (or non-use) of the word a "moral" issue? Possibly. More to the point, the habit of swearing is a bad one, and for some people, the ability to stop at will is next to impossible. That is truly sad. Getting down and dirty with one's peers when everyone curses is OK, I guess. Just don't pollute the airwaves when people who don't curse are within earshot. It may not be a "moral" issue but it then becomes a manners issue. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 14:24
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    @rhetorician: your personal preferences are yours, and you're quite entitled to them; but your description of the habit as "a bad one", and your use of the loaded word "pollute" are personal preferences expressed as though they were objective truths.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 15:12
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    @rhetorician: Yes, let's disagree agreeably. I don't swear much, and rarely in public; but I try to avoid judging people who do, and supposing that they are either depraved or vocabularily challenged. Respect and consideration are important to me, but I'm aware that politeness is a much more movable feast than some would believe. And "moral issue" was certainly not my words.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 23:16

3 Answers 3


Swearing in a foreign language is very rarely a good idea. As well as the difficulty of judging the level of acceptability of swearing in what will by definition be an unfamiliar social situation, there is the difficulty of judging any particular word (the French con is a very mild insult while the English equivalent is one of the strongest known- in Britain, though not necessarily elsewhere). A slight misjudgment in swearing less than your companions will hardly be noticed, while a misjudgment in the other direction could have dire social consequences. And there are usually witty ways to avoid the necessity; Evelyn Waugh, faced with the need to reproduce soldiers' conversation in a novel that had to get past the censor, wrote 'Their language was shocking. "Shock me", they said "if that shocker gives a shock for any shocker that ever shocked. I'll be shocked if he does."'

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    This is the right answer. I would add that, in the US, there is huge variability in the acceptability of swearing from one subgroup to the next. People of different ages, genders, races, levels of religious commitment (especially!) and personal temperaments will all react very differently to the same coarse usage. Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 13:45

How morally acceptable is (it) in informal conversation at work

Only if one works for a f** idiot who swears like a sailor.

among friends

Unfortunately quite common in youth, decreasing in frequency with age, gender, and often with educational level.

talking to a stranger

Never, unless one is, well, an idiot.


Depends. One hears it often when people are stressed or intoxicated. In the Emergency Room, we hear it often, and refer the condition as an acute adjective deficiency.

Does anyone get shocked if you use it?

Yes. I am not a prude, but it always shocks me in person. I've become more accustomed to it in movies of certain genres. On television, most cable channels limit the word to once per season, even in Breaking Bad, a fantastic show about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker.

can you say whether it applies to England?

From what I've heard in England, it's just as bad or worse than in the US.

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    In The Wire, another good series, they had trouble limiting the word to only once per utterance! It has become more ubiquitous in England, even in supposedly higher-brow newspapers such as The Guardian. And like you, I find the word still has great power to shock. I would advise non-native speakers to avoid the word, since, for me at least, it comes across as being forced and occasionally completely risible.
    – Shoe
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 12:31
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    Although I have only a very limited set of data to draw from, I would say that actually being shocked at hearing someone use the word is becoming relatively rare. Personally, I use it sparingly, but it doesn’t shock me in the slightest to hear it—but then I think I still count as being in the younger generation. I do tend to notice it when it’s used in an unexpected situation, such as when my professor (who’s from Michigan, if I recall correctly) uses it during class. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 13:22
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    This is not something that would be expected, even here. We have a very unique atmosphere and student-teacher relationship in general, so don’t make too much of it. :-) Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 14:13
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    From all the answers and comments I got, I conclude that the f*** word is perfectly acceptable by those who use it, and offensive to those who don't. Simple as that. As you can't tell who's who at first sight, better not to use it until you can. In my case, I hardly swear, even in my mother tongue.
    – Centaurus
    Commented Jan 23, 2014 at 16:09
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    @Luis: oic. Well, by that definition I suppose I'd have to say that although in some contexts I use a lot of "swear words", I probably almost never actually "swear". It's extremely unusual for me to "accidentally" swear simply because of something unexpected/painful happening. My choice of register is primarily dictated by how I expect my words to be received, not my own internal state. Obviously if I'm extremely agitated, for example, I might well swear simply because it's an easy way to forcefully convey that - but probably not, if I thought it would trigger other "unwanted" reactions). Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 19:58

I can only speak for the UK, where this word, and another considered somewhat stronger, are commonly used in normal speech, although in certain company, effort is usually made to restrain the use of these words. The sort of company where you try not to use them might be amongst elderly people, certainly children and when with persons you know to be of a 'polite' mindset and who would find it offensive. Nor would you use these expressions at, say, a formal dinner, so in old fashioned terms, never in 'polite company'. I never use them in front of my now elderly mother-in-law, but otherwise, in most company, mine and most everyone else's speech is peppered with this expression, to the point where it's just a word without any real shock value. Whether you use it at work or not depends on the workplace - in some places it's fine, but possibly not when the boss is around, it varies.

I guess I should add that I live in London - there may be regional differences regarding the use of this word.

As for the word being used in its original sense/meaning, yes, it is used for that as well, over here anyway.

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    @Susan, perhaps a simple maternal prefix does the trick? Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 13:17
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    As Bamboo is speaking about the UK, I suspect he is thinking of the c*** word!
    – Shoe
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 13:25
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    @Shoe: SHE is indeed thinking about see you next tuesday, though its use is not quite as often as the f word. I used to be really shocked by it, but you get used to anything if you're exposed often enough. What's interesting is that other words are infinitely more shocking, such as the 'n' word which is almost never heard unless spoken by a black person here.
    – bamboo
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 13:56
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    @starsplusplus agree with both your comments and would add that, compared with all the rest, I find motherfucker very offensive and irritating indeed, and I'm finding it crops up more often over here, unfortunately. After all, in its widest literal meaning, it's not exactly uncommon behaviour since many females are mothers, and in terms of offensiveness, its such a childish and 'macho' thing to say
    – bamboo
    Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 12:30
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    @Luis No, "bloody" is milder. It's more like "damn" than "fucking". We also have "sodding" which is similar to "bloody". But apart from strength the meaning is the same: annoying, offensive, frustrating, etc. Commented Jan 29, 2014 at 16:16

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