SWEARWORD - A popular term for a word or phrase that is obscene, abusive, and socially offensive.

For some reason, all of them seem to be associated with excrements, sex and religion. This question is specific about offenses, not intensifiers. Can you identify any that doesn't follow the rule and tell when and where it originated?

I don't mean mild offenses like "dumb", "idiot", "jackass", "blockhead" or the like, but words or phrases that will shock those who overhear them.

EDIT - It seems my question has been misunderstood by some. I'm looking for swearwords that are not related to excrements, sex or religion, and still might shock someone. I don't expect a list because I believe they are few, and some of them have already been mentioned in the answers below. If I find them together in one answer and there is some reference as to where and when each one originated, I'll accept that answer.

ps. Of course, whether or not we find a word shocking or offensive largely depends on where (and how) we have been brought up, our educational background and elements of culture. I would therefore consider the average man (average income, age, education) as a reference.

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    Those are insults, not taboo words. Excrements, sex, and religion are the sources of magic power, and magic power is what makes words taboo. Some people object to other people's using the words (that's what "obscene" means) under what they consider inappropriate circumstances, because otherwise Bad Things Happen. Magically. Practicing excretion, sex, or religion is OK, but different from invoking them with words improperly; that's the taboo. If a new source of magic appears in our culture, it, too, will generate ritual and obscenity. – John Lawler Sep 29 '14 at 14:50
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    @user463240 Are you looking for intensifiers ("That f-----g ...") or something else? – Andrew Leach Sep 29 '14 at 14:51
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    The interesting thing about English is that it has no swear words that are associated with illnesses. Many other languages treat cancer, cholera, and so on as (parts of) bad words. – Eric Sep 29 '14 at 18:01
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    Check out the Lexicon Valley podcast about profanity and obscenity with author Melissa Mohr. She talks about her book "Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing" which divides bad words into two major camps: the “holy”—religious oaths that we consider profane—and the “shit” —bodily functions and sexual terms that we deem obscene. – Dhaust Sep 29 '14 at 23:15
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    @Eric: Spanish, Filipino (+ others?) use illnesses as curses. – smci Sep 30 '14 at 0:36

13 Answers 13

  • bitch (a female dog)
  • bastard (a person born out of wedlock)
  • honk(e)y (a white person)
  • kike (a Jew)

The etymology of bitch, bastard and honky/honkey as provided by the Online Etymology Dictionary

bitch (n.) Old English bicce "female dog," probably from Old Norse bikkjuna "female of the dog" (also fox, wolf, and occasionally other beasts), of unknown origin. Grimm derives the Old Norse word from Lapp pittja, but OED notes that "the converse is equally possible." As a term of contempt applied to women, it dates from c.1400; of a man, c.1500, playfully, in the sense of "dog." Used among male homosexuals from 1930s. In modern (1990s, originally black English) slang, its use with reference to a man is sexually contemptuous, from the "woman" insult. BITCH. A she dog, or doggess; the most offensive appellation that can be given to an English woman, even more provoking than that of whore. ["Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," 1811]

bastard (n.) "illegitimate child," early 13c., from Old French bastard (11c., Modern French bâtard), "acknowledged child of a nobleman by a woman other than his wife," probably from fils de bast "packsaddle son," meaning a child conceived on an improvised bed (saddles often doubled as beds while traveling), with pejorative ending -art (see -ard). Alternative possibly is that the word is from Proto-Germanic *banstiz "barn," equally suggestive of low origin.

Not always regarded as a stigma; the Conqueror is referred to in state documents as "William the Bastard." Figurative sense of "something not pure or genuine" is late 14c.; use as a vulgar term of abuse for a man is attested from 1830. As an adjective from late 14c. Among the "bastard" words in Halliwell-Phillipps' "Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words" are avetrol, chance-bairn, by-blow, harecoppe, horcop, and gimbo ("a bastard's bastard").

honky (n.) also honkey, derogatory slang word for "white person," by 1967, black slang, of unknown origin, perhaps from late 19c. hunky "East-Central European immigrant," a colloquial shortening of Hungarian. Honky in the sense of "factory hand" is attested from 1946.

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    Possibly the negative connotations with outside of wedlock link back to religious laws (no sex outside of marriage) so it may be that that is religious? – Tim Sep 29 '14 at 15:30
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    Could you say something about the etymology of "bitch" as a swearword? – Centaurus Sep 29 '14 at 15:31
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    Using sow or pig or cow or ape to refer to a person might qualify, though I think the top two in that list are about the best candidates. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 29 '14 at 16:12
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    I would argue that kike is a racial slur first, since the recipient will be Jewish, but may or may not actually follow Judaism. And most of the hate towards the Jewish people aka anti-semitism is towards the Jews as a people, a race, not as a practicing religious group. – Himarm Sep 29 '14 at 20:21
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    It surprises me that nobody commented on the sexual aspects of creating a bastard yet. This alone may suffice to make the term sexual in the sense of the question. Moreover, I can very well imagine that a primitive culture considers sins to be inheritable, people repsonsible for their parents’ flaws or people unclean just due to being the product of extramarital and thus unclean sex. By the way: A German swearword with similar “mechanisms” is Hurensohn (son of a prostitute), which is clearly sexual. – Wrzlprmft Sep 29 '14 at 22:22

If you're looking for something shocking, the word nigger is shocking in and of itself and if you actually use it as an insult (as some do) it is about as shocking as it gets.

Its etymology according to the online etymological dictionary is:

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from French nègre, from Spanish negro (see Negro). From the earliest usage it was "the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks" [cited in Gowers, 1965, probably Harold R. Isaacs]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person.

Note that reasonable people consider the word incredibly offensive and would never use it. Of those who do, only the most extreme of bigots would actually use it as an insult and not a description but using it as an insult is possible. Of course, whether you would actually be insulting anyone but yourself when using it is debatable.

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    @user463240 see update. – terdon Sep 29 '14 at 15:48
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    There are a variety of similar slurs for other ethnicities as well — "spic", "chink", "dago", "greaseball", "cracker", and "redskin" for example — but "nigger", by far, tops the list in offensiveness. (Commented for those who don't have a native understanding, not just to list random offensive words.) – wfaulk Sep 29 '14 at 20:01
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    "Note that reasonable people consider the word incredibly offensive" No… I see perfectly reasonable people using it in normal conversation, mostly two black people talking or somebody of another race another race talking to a close black friend. – bjb568 Sep 29 '14 at 21:30
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    A swearword is not the same as an offensive word, let alone a word that others find offensive. – Tim Lymington Sep 29 '14 at 21:42
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    @TimLymington no, but this particular word can and is used as a swearword and the OP specifically asked for things that are shocking to others. In any case, since this word is most certainly used by some people as a slur on others, it fits the definition of a swearword perfectly. – terdon Sep 29 '14 at 21:43

Bloody - It's often used with 'hell' making it religious. ('Bloody hell! What's she gone and done now?').

But can be used on its own. 'Shut the bloody dog up!'.

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    @jwpat7 That's not certain. According to the wikipedia page there are several theories. – dwjohnston Sep 29 '14 at 23:48
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    @user463240 - It really depends on who's around. Of course it's a more mild swearword than 'cunt' or 'fuck', but depending on who you ask, it could be considered more obscene than 'crap' (some people see that as not a swear word at all). A kid could expect a cuff around the ears for saying 'bloody'. – dwjohnston Sep 30 '14 at 0:30
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    Although there are different theories and no clear evidence as to which one is right, I think most (all?) of them fall under either religion or sexual/genital categories. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Sep 30 '14 at 2:14
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    I for one am quite convinced that "bloody" is a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus. I've never seen any convincing evidence to the contrary, and the prevalence of profane phrases like "god's wounds" and "god's blood" supports the hypothesis quite strongly, in my opinion. – phoog Sep 30 '14 at 6:11
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    @user463240 I have already - I'm not sure why it was closed. – dwjohnston Oct 1 '14 at 1:55

Fore diseased & unclean:
You could argue that these are venereal diseases, and so are linked back to sex.

There are also sport-related swear words, but the line between swear and insult may be a tad blurry for:
"umpire" or
"Chelsea supporter" [to quote an episode of The Goodies]

  • "Poxy" would be the term you're looking for, but it's not much in use anymore. – Ernie Sep 30 '14 at 17:05

The first that came to my mind relate to disability:

  • "Retard" denotes a person with intellectual disability, but it has since joined "idiot" (severe ID), "imbecile" (moderate ID), and "moron" (mild ID) as general terms of abuse. This has inspired pledges not to use it; see R-Word: Spread the Word to End the Word.
  • "Spastic", denoting a person with cerebral palsy, is offensive in Great Britain and caused recalls of the video games Mind Quiz: Your Brain Coach and Mario Party 8 in parts of Europe.
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    The trouble is each new generation takes the new "approved" term and uses it as an insult. The favourite I hear now is "special". – neil Sep 30 '14 at 7:25

'Blast!' is one, although it's British. I've been using this word since teenage days, although I don't know how I picked it up. My guess is, growing up in New York City in the '50s there were a lot of British movies around to fill the vacuum left by HUAC's blacklisting of screenwriters. You can hear James Mason shout 'Blast!' in 'Age of Consent'.

  • What exactly does it mean? Is it just an interjection? Is it shocking? – Centaurus Sep 30 '14 at 0:24
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    Blast means to curse or to damn. It is short for "blast it (her/you) to hell." It is informal, not shocking. Use is not confined to Britain. Americans use it with the a sounding typically shorter the British. – Theresa Sep 30 '14 at 1:21
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    If @Theresa is correct, and I think she is, then "blast" doesn't satisfy the question because it is religious in origin. – phoog Sep 30 '14 at 6:07
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    I can hear the roaring sound of a hair splitting! – user3847 Sep 30 '14 at 8:21
  • @user3847 Would you vote for reopening the question? – Centaurus Oct 2 '14 at 1:16

Your definition of swearword is an example of how language changes over time. Swearing was once synonymous with blaspheming and profaning, meaning some taboo use of the name of God. Current use blurs the distinction between obscenity or foul language and profanity or swearing.


The difficulty of the question lies in your definition:

... a word or phrase that is obscene, abusive, and socially offensive.

Obscenity is a highly subjective standard. To approach a universal standard would probably require someone to go into issues that people usually keep private (bathroom time, bedroom time, worship time).

Here's a phrase that could be used as a curse or swear that would be considered shocking on a moral level: BABY KILLER. I invite you to give it a try.

While it may be considered an excrement (as well as a euphemism) SNOT is a standby that I often use: You have snot for brains.

Of course, perhaps one of the most well known euphemisms is BLEEP, although it would probably not be considered shocking in any way.



jarhead (spelling?) - term for a U.S. Marine but also used to imply that someone is not too bright.

dumb bunny

Admittedly, these aren't as harsh as "asshole", "dickhead", or my personal favorite, "you wiper of other people's bottoms"*

You didn't mention that politics is out of bounds so you could also use, "Commie Pinko Liberal" "Nazi" "Republican"


*From Monty Python

  • These are insults, but not swearwords. – dwjohnston Sep 29 '14 at 23:33
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    Given the OP's definition: "A popular term for a word or phrase that is obscene, abusive, and socially offensive.", I would say that the examples I gave are swearwords. It depends on ones tolerance I suppose. Certainly, I would find the use of the word "Nazi" obscene, abusive, and socially offensive. "knucklehead" would depend on context. – Dave Sep 30 '14 at 0:07
  • @Dave but it's not obscene, abusive, or socially offensive to say "the Nazi party controlled Germany during and immediately before the second world war." In contrast, it is (at least arguably) socially offensive to say "the toilet is where you shit" or "people have babies by fucking." So Nazi is only obscene/abusive/offensive when you assert that someone is a Nazi. Even then, it's only offensive if the target of the insult finds Nazi ideals offensive. It would be a very empty insult to throw at Hitler, for example. – phoog Sep 30 '14 at 6:22

"Asshole" works, considering that the entity that it describes is neither a genital, nor excrement itself. Granted, this is playing with a technicality in your question, but it's certainly less likely to get you knocked square on your ass than some of the other suggestions.

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    @user463240 -- Genital is from Latin genitalis, “pertaining to generation or birth”; it's connected with words like genetic, generic, gens, the name Eugene ("from a good family"), gentle (originally meaning born into a high-status family), and genius ("inborn talent"). It doesn't matter how much fun you are having with your butthole, you aren't conceiving any children that way. Moreover, in the singular, the word is an adjective ("genital herpes"), not a noun. – Malvolio Sep 29 '14 at 22:41
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    @Malvolio I mean "for some people it is part of the genitalia". And you know it's true, otherwise we wouldn't have such terms as "anal sex" and "anal intercourse". – Centaurus Sep 29 '14 at 23:18
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    Despite what you may have heard in jokes about politicians, anal sex cannot generate, engender, lead to a generation of, anybody. For that you need... genitalia. – Malvolio Sep 30 '14 at 1:49
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    And how is this one not related to excrement? – Loren Pechtel Sep 30 '14 at 2:58
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    @Malvolio whether you choose a strict or loose definition of "genitals," there is no question that "asshole" can be related to sexual activity. Of course, it is also unambiguously related to excrement, even if it is not itself excrement. – phoog Sep 30 '14 at 6:26

Rare on the ground, but: eggsucker, kitten killer (and its like).

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    Not exactly swear words though... – Mari-Lou A Sep 29 '14 at 14:50
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    No, there are lots of insults. You can get creative with insults. But if a word ain't taboo, you can't get magic out of it. – John Lawler Sep 29 '14 at 14:52
  • 'bunny boiler', nutjob...insults but not swearwords – smci Sep 30 '14 at 0:38


According to Google:

"late 16th century (denoting a frothy liquid; later, an unappetizing mixture of drinks): of unknown origin."

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    Balderdash is no longer a swearword - it now means "Senseless talk or writing; nonsense." – Tim Sep 29 '14 at 15:31

Freaking. As in: "A freaking good time."

  • "Freaking" is not a swearword by any definition. – Matt E. Эллен Oct 3 '14 at 10:31
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    It is shocking that anyone might consider this euphemism for the f-word obscene. – James McLeod Oct 5 '14 at 13:26

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