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I heard a character in a children's cartoon use it and was a bit shocked given that it was like a PG/Y7 rated show and I have thought of the word as a vulgar phrase, albeit a mild one.

That being said, is this phrase considered ACTUALLY an vulgar phrase or at least too harsh for young children, or is this just my viewpoint?

For context, here is the scene it was used in(at 5:49): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjfFmMaG8Ek&ab_channel=ZeeToons%E2%80%93CartoonsforKids

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    "Is the phrase 'screw up' or 'screwed up' considered profanity..." Who is doing the considering? Presumably the makers of the show didn't think so. People's attitudes to profanity vary greatly depending on their social background and beliefs, so you're just going to get a set of opinions. Commented May 16, 2023 at 20:16
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    What country is this? Standards vary. I'm guessing you're American but not 100% sure. In the UK, media regulators publish a list of offensive language, which doesn't include "screw", not sure if there is anything similar in other countries. That's more of a question for Movies and TV SE though.
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 8:22
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    Anecdotally - Facebook considers it grounds for dismissal. I once used it without really thinking it 'too rude' in a post in a [public/open] sound engineering group about having got something wrong… to find I had not only been auto-ejected from the group but the group itself completely hidden from me. I only discovered this by messaging one of the admins, who could see the post's deletion [but he could do nothing about my group membership, which I cannot rejoin even a year later].
    – Tetsujin
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 10:26
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    "Screwed" is a substitute for "fucked". You can decide if that makes it profane.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 20:52

4 Answers 4

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Depends completely on which state / country / social setting you inhabit.

In my UK workplace, "I screwed up" would be a completely normal but colloquial way of accepting that one has made a mistake. For a young child one might prefer "messed up" (which means much the same). Not sure whether that's because of profanity or because "messed" is more likely to be in a child's vocabulary.

An adult will recognise that "screwed up" is a milder form of "f*cked up" -- which in the UK might well be used in the same workplace for a worse than average screw-up, but it might offend some. Well, maybe. Alternatively, grabbing a sheet of paper and crumpling it into a ball is screwing the paper up, possibly because you have messed up (screwed up) what is written on it.

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    Note that "I screwed up" is not on the same level of profanity as "he screwed me up" for example Commented May 17, 2023 at 9:07
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    Completely coincidentally within an hour of this, one of my colleagues used "I screwed up" in the context of something somewhat expensive and very fragile now being in pieces in the bin. We're buying another one. Coincidences bug me.
    – nigel222
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 11:40
  • Whoa. You think coincidences are bad? Check this out. I was googling "screwing up" and I found a 1990 article by William Safire of the New York Times. (see nytimes.com/1990/04/08/magazine/on-language-screwing-up.html). In it, he quotes a guy named Mankiewicz who said that screw-up is similar to SNAFU.
    – mankowitz
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 20:52
  • @Tel Also of note is that "I screwed him/her" is stronger than that, but can still be non-profanity (e.g. "I screwed him out of a promotion"). When used to directly reference sex, then it becomes more of a euphemism, a bit stronger than something like "I slept with them" or "I hooked up with them."
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 13:50
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Profanity exists on a spectrum from mildly insensitive to downright intolerable. This spectrum changes over time and in different contexts.

However, since the word screw often refers to intercourse, I would argue that this at least mild profanity, even if the listeners may not be aware of the connotation.

Consider the following usages of the same word as they progress from acceptable to inacceptable in public discourse.

  1. I tightened the screw with a Philips screwdriver.
  2. They screwed me out of my bonus this year.
  3. I screwed that girl.
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    "You screwed up! You were supposed to add sugar to that cake!" would be somewhere between 1 and 3
    – Clockwork
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 5:23
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    I don't see how this answers the question. Where does screw up fall on that spectrum?
    – Chris H
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 7:55
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    While I agree that, ultimately, this is subjective, I still think you have a missing part in your scale. That is, I would argue that "I screwed up" -- which can also be "I messed up" -- doesn't necessarily evoke intercourse in the minds of the listeners while "They screwed me up" -- a milder alternative to "They f*cked me up" -- definitely does, and is therefore more vulgar, as far as I am concerned. Commented May 17, 2023 at 10:09
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    what makes you think blasphemy is the most extreme form of profanity? The two words commonly held to be the most offensive swear words (beginning c & f) both relate to sex, and neither are at all blasphemous. In fact, blasphemous swearing (e.g. "damn", "bloody", etc) are generally felt to be fairly weak ime
    – Tristan
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 13:38
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    I also don't think the argument that because screw is a euphemism for sex it must count as profanity. The same is true of saying something "sucks", but this is frequently heard in children's media (albeit not usually for the youngest children) without complaints
    – Tristan
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 13:40
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That being said, is this phrase considered ACTUALLY an vulgar phrase or at least too harsh for young children, or is this just my viewpoint?

As already commented, standards of rudeness are both cultural and personal; but here's the BBFC (the UK film censors) taking on exactly this phrase:

U stands for universal.

It means films that anyone can watch, including children as young as four.

...

In a U rated film, you might hear infrequent use of very mild bad language.

Here’s some examples from well known films.

...

Onward

[rated U for] mild threat, very mild bad language

Onward is an animated fantasy adventure in which two elf brothers attempt to bring magic back to their world from which it has disappeared.

...

What's the bad language?

"You act like you know what you're doing, but you don't have a clue! And that's because you are a screw up... And now you've screwed up my chance to have the ONE thing I never had!”

What we say:

In Onward, the term screw up is used in place of the word “messed up”, and the phrase is not used as a substitute for strong language, or used in a sexual sense. In this context, this word is acceptable at U. However, if the character directed the phrase at another character in an aggressive or angry manner, then this could result in a higher classification.

My emphasis in the last paragraph. From A Parents' Guide To Language on the BBFC website.

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That being said, is this phrase considered ACTUALLY an vulgar phrase or at least too harsh for young children, or is this just my viewpoint?

All responses to words and phrases are learned responses. There are no words/phrases that are vulgar per se.

Children are not born with a response to a particular word or phrase. The response is a cultural meme that is passed down through the generations. To the child, "to screw up" is neutral. Once the child sees the reaction of a respected adult, the child imitates that reaction.

Thus, as a broader, non-language issue, the suitability for a child of any word is that which the parent shows. This is purely subjective.

TV programmers tend only to use words which they feel can be defended against objection.

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  • This is not a useful answer. Everything about language is "learned responses", nothing has any inherent meaning. The language community assigns meaning and nuances to utterances, and some of them are considered vulgar. It's no less meaningful to ask questions about this than about whether something is grammatical.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 17, 2023 at 16:15
  • @Barmar You need to define the term "The language community" and explain how it "assigns meaning and nuances to utterances". As it stands, my answer is an answer with a reasoned explanation. You seem to have done no more than paraphrase it.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 9:34
  • I'm not a trained linguist, but my understanding is that this is a well known concept in that field. A language is defined by how it's used, and the users comprise the language community. E.g. the only reason that "head" means the thing at the top of our body is because that's the concensus understanding of English speakers.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 15:10
  • And similarly, the reason the F-word is vulgar is because that's the concensus opinion of English speakers. Meanwhile, "screw up" is not generally considered as bad.
    – Barmar
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 15:11
  • And similarly, the reason the F-word is vulgar is because that's the consensus opinion of English speakers. This does not explain anything. It is circular. It certainly does not explain why a word can be vulgar to one generation, but not another, and why degrees of perceived vulgarity exist together in one society, nor yet why a word can suddenly rush to the top of the vulgarity list after being seen as inoffensive for hundreds of years.
    – Greybeard
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 15:53

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