12

I'm having a serious argument with a friend on the status of the word "suck" when I used it about him by saying "You suck!" because he missed a train. We are both non-native English speakers. He claimed that I used it as a foul or slang term. I vehemently disagreed with him about it. I told him that the word "suck" can be used to describe something inefficient or not good enough as well like it is used in the example "Samsung mobile sucks".

Am I right to describe the use of the word "suck" in such context?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Marv Mills, Edwin Ashworth, ScotM, FumbleFingers, Ellie Kesselman Jun 12 '15 at 10:33

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 12
    It'd always disparaging and derogatory, but not descriptive of why something is bad. It does not usually imply "inefficient" or "subpar", though something might suck because it is inefficient (like a slow computer) or subpar (like a lame joke). It is slang: it is not used in formal registers. – Dan Bron Jun 8 '15 at 20:43
  • Slang doesn't really have an official definition - it's just whatever you don't feel comfortable using in school essays. – curiousdannii Jun 8 '15 at 21:55
  • 1
    Also, slang is not a noun, so a slang is incorrect. – MSalters Jun 9 '15 at 14:06
  • 2
    It’s not always slang or derogatory. If someone asks you how you get the marrow out of the bones in your osso buco, an appropriate answer might be “Easy: you suck!”, and there’s nothing slangy or derogatory about that. /// @MSalters Incorrect. Slang is a noun. It is not usually a count noun, however, which is why ‘a slang’ doesn’t work. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 9 '15 at 14:34
  • 2
    @MSalters "Slang" is absolutely a noun! "A slang" is incorrect because it's not a countable noun. – David Richerby Jun 9 '15 at 23:10
33

Yes, you can use the word in the way that you have described, but it's considered more harsh than polite, and it has somewhat vulgar overtones. How it's regarded or received might be generational.

I typed is suck vulgar? on Google, and found mixed responses. Feel free to do the same if you want diverse opinions on the matter. I thought this excerpt from a blog post, though, was worth pasting into an answer here:

Some may not believe this, but suck — as in “Man, this class sucks” — was also in the raw obscenity category when I was a teenager. It was used plenty in the school hallways but not in front of your teacher and never in front of your mother. I remember some agitation by certain culturally-advanced youngsters who tried to railroad their elders into accepting sucks as a safe and harmless substitute for stinks. The elders weren’t having any of it, last I checked, but the liberalizing linguists seem to have carried the day. I have always assumed—rightly or wrongly, I do not know — that the word was originally intended to carry sexual overtones, which was the reason for its suppression. Today, the sexual overtones are either forgotten or are now acceptable in mixed company. I’m not sure which explanation disturbs me more.

I think you and your friend are unlikely to come up with an agreed-upon viewpoint, because you're both right in a way. Feel free to use it on message boards and the like when you want to express a negative opinion, but realize you'll risk sounding a bit uncouth to some when you do.

Then again, maybe I'm just showing my age here.

As a footnote, you might want to check out our sister site, English Language Learners.

  • 4
    Hey. You. No posting high-quality, comprehensive, and yet still eminently accessible answers to questions until I have more votes to spend. Try to be a little more considerate of my needs, J.R. . – Dan Bron Jun 8 '15 at 22:26
  • 1
    Well.. what can it be short for except for something obscene? – Lembik Jun 9 '15 at 8:45
  • 1
    @Lembik - It's not a matter of what it's "short for," it's a matter of how the word is used and its intended meaning. When you say, "You stink at baseball," you're not referring to any odors. Who's to say that "You suck at baseball" must necessarily connote vulgar sexual overtones? That may be the original underlying notion, but the more interesting question is: can the word evolve far enough away from its origin to where it's no longer considered vulgar or obscene? (Plus, it could be short for "suck eggs.") – J.R. Jun 9 '15 at 8:53
  • the phrase is only ever used for its slang interpretation, it is not and has never been used in the literal sense, at least not in my lifetime (1977 to present) -- the generation preceding mine found it foreign, they fought its use by trying to point out the absurdity of the statement in its literal sense (given the context of the moment.) language evolves. the people who fought the use of "sucks" include those who used phrases like "rad", "bitchin'" and "groovy". one could argue the phrase was rebuked on the sole grounds it was derogatory, and not because of any sexual connotation. – Shaun Wilson Jun 9 '15 at 10:16
  • 2
    @LittleE - The word evolved to mean what it means, even if those who use it remain ignorant of its origin. "Your parents grounded you? That bites! That blows! That sucks!" Anyone curious enough to contemplate those words can find a recurring theme there, but, unfortunately, most teenagers aren't so curious about etymology when they are adding new phrases into their vernacular. To be fair, I've called a "Bronx cheer" a raspberry, but did so for a long time before I learned how it got the name: because raspberry tart rhymes with fart. – J.R. Jun 10 '15 at 0:46
12

Yes, as used in the OP, "sucks" is always slang.

SUCKS transitive verb; slang: a. To be highly unpleasant or disagreeable: This job sucks. b. To be of poor or inferior quality: The acting in that movie sucked. c. To be inept: I suck at math. see TFD

The fixed-phrase “this/that SUCKS dick/cock” gained currency exclusively among male American youth in the early 1970’s as a derogatory slang expression of general contempt for some object, activity, or person. The phrase was, as intended, unapologetically misogynistic and homophobic. In the seventies, female youth never employed this idiom. No surprise there, though this is no longer the case. By the late seventies, probably in order to evade adult censure (and since youth knew precisely what was intended), the last word of the phrase was dropped. If the term is currently considered to be non-vulgar it is most likely due to this partial sanitization and because contemporary youth are ignorant of the original misogynistic and homophobic intent. see, ELU; UE;

  • 2
    +1. I always "heard" the dropped word. Good to have it confirmed. This could also explain why nowadays people say "This sucks ass", which doesn't really make sense. – Tushar Raj Jun 9 '15 at 14:14
  • 2
    @LaurencePayne I think the conclusion that it's a mysogynistic and/or homophobic remark comes from the notion that its most literal meaning depicts oral sex on male genitalia as negative, since it's being compared to something which is clearly undesirable. Depicting the act as negative paints those who perform it willingly in a similar light. The vast majority of people who perform this type of act willingly are women or homosexual men. It might not be used with intent of bigotry (these days, at least), but its literal meaning does imply negative portrayal of an entire group of people. – talrnu Jun 9 '15 at 16:09
  • 3
    @JanusBahsJacquet I've never once heard anybody use the phrase "She blew him off" to mean "She blew him"; where is that in use? "She blew him off" would, to me, mean that she ignored or rejected him. – Anthony Grist Jun 9 '15 at 16:47
  • 3
    @talrnu - The reason I consider the use of the full phrase or its derivative contraction to be misogynistic and homophobic is because, while the performance of fellatio---by women, or by men assuming the subservient “feminine” role, who are therefore presumed to be homosexual---is enshrined in this phrase as the epitome of worthlessness, those who allow such an act to be performed upon then, who are by definition exclusively male, are assigned no corresponding censure. – user98990 Jun 9 '15 at 23:14
  • 2
    Copying and pasting your last comment for future use! I will of course always say who the author was. Excellent comeback, excellent explanation. (I had already upvoted, but wish I could upvote again) – Mari-Lou A Jun 10 '15 at 5:19
8

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) has some interesting commentary on suck and the seemingly allied phrases suck around, suck [someone] in, suck off, and suck up to [someone]. Of that entire group, only one term, suck off, is characterized as "taboo" across the board:

suck off [taboo] 1 To commit cunnilingus or fellatio. --> 2 To curry favor with a superior or influential person. Fig[uratively] and scornfully, to be willing to do anything to curry favor.

Wentworth & Flexner lists suck itself as taboo in the first sense of the word, but draws a fine line between suck and suck off in the second sense:

suck v.i., v.t. 1 [taboo] To perform cunnilingus or, esp., fellatio. --> 2 To curry favor with people in in authority. Although not taboo, prob. from "suck off."

The other three closely related terms are not treated as taboo in any respect:

suck around To hang around a place or person with a view of gaining preference or favors.

suck [someone] in To deceive; esp. to deceive by making false promises.

suck up to [someone] To curry favor with someone by being exceptionally agreeable, or by doing menial jobs for that person. Cf. suck off.

And finally, Wentworth & Flexner offers this entry for egg-sucker:

egg-sucker n. One who seeks advancement through flattery rather than work; a "weasel."

This last term may help explain the non-taboo status of many of the terms in the suck family as of 1960. The notoriety of weasels as egg suckers goes back at least to Shakespeare's day. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to this reputation twice—in Henry V:

Westmoreland. But there's a saying, very old and true, —

If that you will France win,

Then with Scotland first begin:

For once the eagle England being in prey,

To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot

Comes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs;

Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,

To spoil and havoc more than she can eat.

and again in As You Like It (in the voice of the melancholy Jaques):

I can suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs.

It may be, then, that saying "You suck" to someone has always had the fallback implication "You are a weasel" if the insinuation "You [metaphorically or actually] perform oral sex on people for personal advancement" seems too harsh or dangerous for the speaker to own up to.

To complicate things further, in the 55 years since the first edition of Wentworth & Flexner appeared, the term suck has acquired additional and more generalized meanings. Thus, Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) opens its entry for suck this way:

suck 1 v by 1928 To do fellatio =EAT 2 v (also suck rope, suck eggs) by 1971 To be disgusting or extremely reprehensible; be of wretched quality; =ROT, STINK [examples omitted]

So "You suck" can be used jocularly in the sense of "You stink" or vehemently in the sense of "You are reprehensible" or contemptuously in the sense of "You are willing to provide sexual favors to someone in return for unspecified rewards."

Under the circumstances, it's easy to see why the person telling someone "You suck" and the person being told by someone "You suck" might seriously disagree as to the phrase's meaning.

  • I'd say that just "you suck" has pretty much lost any connotation of "suck up" / "curry favour". It means to be really bad at something or to do something culpably wrong. The degree of offence it causes might still have something to do with oral sex and/or eggs, I suppose. – Steve Jessop Jun 9 '15 at 12:37
  • 1
    @SteveJessop: I agree with you for the most part. The notion of sucking has been broadened tremendously by the effect of expressions like "It [some inanimate thing or situation] sucks" (meaning "It's a drag" or "It's no good," as in the OP's Samsung mobile example) and "Sucks to be you" (meaning something like "Tough luck for you" or "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes right now")—neither of which has much of a weasel or sex angle but instead conveys a kind of generic badness. But penumbrally, suck is still a somewhat loaded worded, in my opinion, if only for historical reasons. – Sven Yargs Jun 9 '15 at 16:19
  • This is the only answer which includes "suck eggs" which I'd say is the original origin of the term rather than the sexual "suck off" or "suck cock". People who grew up in the 70's or later probably would think more of the latter, but I still hear people from older generations say "suck eggs". – kjbartel Jun 10 '15 at 9:31
4

It is not exactly foul language, but it is considered vulgar and rather common to use "suck" in this context. There are better words to express discontent or dismay at inefficiency of something. On another note, the term is usually applied to things or situations, not people; it is said that "something sucks" but it's unusual to hear that "someone sucks".

  • It's not that uncommon to hear "someone sucks" - certainly "you suck!" is a common insult among the people I associate with, and especially "X sucks at <activity>" is very common indeed (as a web search will confirm!). This may vary a lot with dialect, though. – psmears Jun 9 '15 at 16:15
  • Right, but I was responding to the part where you say it's unusual to hear "someone sucks", implying that it is not popular/prevalent - when, in my experience, it is :) – psmears Jun 15 '15 at 15:38
  • I didn't say that "someone sucks" it is never used, but that it is unusual to hear. Among people whom I associate with, a person or a situation does not "suck" unless it has a straw in its mouth. That's why I say that the use of it is common; by "common", I don't mean "popular" or "prevalent". It is not a question of dialect but rather a question of elegance of someone's language. – Bernadette Jun 15 '15 at 15:38
  • I didn't say that "someone sucks" it is never used, but that it is unusual to hear.. I know - but the fact is that it is not unusual at all, as a short amount of time searching the web will tell you :) You're right that it's far from being considered formal language, but your last sentence that says "something sucks" is said but that "someone sucks" is unusual is not really borne out by the evidence :) – psmears Jun 15 '15 at 15:45
3

The history and etymology of the phrase has been discussed in the other answers, and for that reason, another two factors to consider are 1. age and 2. dialect of the speaker. I am fifty one, exactly of the "male youth of the early 1970s" age in Little Eva's answer, so I'd NEVER use the word to someone my own age. As for my children: that's quite a different matter: the word is much less strong between people of my daughter's age and I have heard it used by 10 year olds in a way not unlike that meant by the OP.

Although the usage in Australia in the 1970s was definitely highly derogatory - to call someone a "suck" was to class them amongst the most contemtible - it was used by males AND females equally and never in the full form "suck dick". Most of us were utterly oblivious to the sexual connotations and it did not have a homophobic taint - even though this was in a culture that was (and continues to be) extremely homophobic. Naive as this may sound, I never even considered the rather obvious in hindsight sexual connotations until reading Sven Yargs's most interesting answer. This is probably because it had lost currency by the time I and my peers reached sexual age. Another thing about the usage here at the time that may explain my naivety: its main connotation, as I recall it, was one of disingenuousness and untrustworthiness. I also read As You Like It when I was 11, found the allusion to weasels sucking eggs and was ever after certain this was the origin, simply because (1) the word "weasel" also bore a very like connotation to "a suck" at the time and (2) the kinds of personal qualities Shakespeare clearly meant to convey in his egg sucking weasel metaphors matched the 1970s Australian usage near perfectly. I'm not the only one mistaken about etymology in this way: the word has come into usage by our children (but not nearly with the same strength of venom) and I have heard other grown ups explain to their children that it came from Shakespeare. As I said, I think any Australian of my age who read As You Like It would naturally have assumed the mistaken Shakespearean etymology as the word was so near in its meaning to Shakespeare's weasels.

  • Possibly the Australian etymology is not mistaken, but correct, as you mentioned you had never heard it as "___ sucks dick". I first encountered the term "sucks" in high school as part of the full phrase and it's sexual, misogynistic and homophobic intent was explicit. +1 for your contribution. I would suggest breaking up that monolithic block of text into paragraphs. ;-) – user98990 Jun 10 '15 at 0:46
2

Is it derogatory? Yes. But also there is the fact that in many instances close friends frequently call each things that they wouldn't call others, and it is not taken as an insult. A black person calling another black person "my n****", or a close friend calling his buddy "you A$$hole" during some competition when the friend just scored a point against you. so "you suck" can be an endearing comment - assuming that you are both in the right frame of mind. The act of using insults as part of banter has been known to blow up if one or the other isn't in the right mood to take it (or give it) in the right spirit.

  • 1
    This "endearing insult" usage was exactly how I read the OP's sentence before reading the rest. – WetSavannaAnimal Jun 9 '15 at 23:24
1

Well, "suck" does have a literal, non-slang meaning: to draw a fluid in by suction. As in, "I sucked the soda through a straw."

Clearly that's not the meaning you are using here. If you use "suck" to mean that something is bad, that's slang, period. Whether the word is appropriate depends on the context.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.