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There are at least a few cases in which a compound word or phrase, transparently containing an obscene word, seems to be considered less obscene (in some dialect/registers/circumstances) than the word itself. The two examples on which I’m fairly sure of this are:

  • clusterfuck
  • bullshit

Unfortunately I have no hard references beyond my own experience here: I’ve heard people use these whom I’ve never heard swear otherwise, and heard clusterfuck on the radio in programmes where I’d be amazed to hear fuck. But I recall also seing this mentioned somewhere online — a comment on Language Log, or similar — though I can’t now track that down.

So… is this phenomenon documented? well-known? quantified? And are there other notable examples?  The other potential example I can think of is motherfucker — it has I think become partially decoupled from fuck in its level of obscenity, but in the circles I know, it’s typically considered more not less obscene.

(Since I don’t have any references, I'm open to the suggestion that I’m imagining this phenomenon, over-extrapolating from a few unusual occurrences.)

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  • 8
    One that I find endlessly amusing is that we are allowed to say "God" and "damn" on American broadcast TV, but if the two words are next to each other ("goddamn"), it becomes something that must be censored. And, whenever this censoring takes place, it is always the word "God" that is edited out, leaving "damn" by itself!
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 21:09
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    FWIW, nobody censors "bitch" or compounds thereof in American television programs...
    – user730
    Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 23:47
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    Simon: "I swear... when it's appropriate." Kaylee: "Simon, the whole point of swearin' is that it ain't appropriate!" - from Firefly
    – user730
    Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 0:35
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    @Kosmonaut: Well, the thing is using "God" and "damn" in the same breath would be tantamount to breaking the third commandment. So, in that sense, it's fine to have "damn"!
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 0:49
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    @Kosmonaut: FWIW, let's not forget that Beaumarchais, speaking through Figaro, reduced the ehtire English language to those two words. Here's the link: books.google.com.hk/…
    – Mike Jones
    Commented Oct 26, 2011 at 3:33

4 Answers 4

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I strongly disagree that clusterfuck and bullshit are considered less "obscene" than fuck and shit are all by themselves. People who would be shocked by the former will be just as shocked by the latter. Even in the compounds you mention, those words still get bleeped from broadcast TV in the U.S.

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  • I cannot understand why the words are scapegoats. In Russian telling about sexual intercourse in decent words, out of medical or other necessity, is considered no less obscene. And this does not depend on choice of words, though there are very descriptive extremely short obscenities, usually in 2-5 letters, that do not require further more lengthy expalanations in decent words Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 19:23
  • “No less obscene?” — really? In your recent question you described хуй as so obscene you “doubt any dictionary listed it anywhere”. But, surely, its medical synonyms would be listed in dictionaries — they would not be considered too obscene to document?
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 16:41
  • It will not be listed. It is taboo designed for non-medical usage Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 18:25
  • @vgv8: Indeed, so surely this shows that it is more obscene than the medical terms? So to some extent “the words are scapegoats” in Russian as well, even if talking about sexual topics in any words is much more taboo in Russian than in English. (As far as I know this is the case in most languages and cultures: some topics are obscene/taboo, but even within these topics, some words are more taboo than others.)
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 19:06
  • 1) I just recalled that I wrote that word for the first time in my life. And b/c I was shocked. 2) It hardly could be indexed b/c it is usually distorted in writing or writeen by derivatives; 2a) the words with less than 4 symbols are not indexed Commented Feb 11, 2011 at 1:53
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Contrary to Robusto's opinion, I find that certain compounds (such as those you mentioned) are indeed less offensive than the bare vulgarities you mentioned. (Others, such as "motherfucker", are worse.) However, I don't think there's any kind of broad social consensus on this, aside from highly arbitrary censorship lists used by some regulatory agencies or style guides.

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  • For example, the translation by google I cited in to Dick or not to dick or to whom?(closed) is impossible to find anywhere (even less in specialized medical literature). Was it owner of google who himself entered it into google searchengine database to make "fun" of American linguists and translators? Commented Feb 9, 2011 at 19:32
  • @vgv8: No, in the US/UK there are not (to my knowledge) any obscenities considered too strong to be printed or discussed. There were, up until about the mid-20th century, I believe; as I understand it, the culture was changed through several influential literary works, eg Lady Chatterley’s Lover and resulting legal trials for obscenity/censorship — they were first used in print by provocative, fairly highbrow authors, but the precedent set by this paved the way for them to be used in more popular media.
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 16:52
  • @vgv8: re google translate, as I understand it works largely not from a dictionary entered by hand, but using information gathered from all the webpages that google has indexed. So if an obscenity appears in google translate, this is because many people are using that obscenity on the internet.
    – PLL
    Commented Feb 10, 2011 at 16:55
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    @PLL "No, in the US/UK there are not (to my knowledge) any obscenities considered too strong to be printed or discussed." I'd say nigger is getting there. People may even think less of me for having written that word on here.
    – Jez
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 18:54
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There is at least one instance of documentation: a remark in the Urban Dictionary that "ironically" the expression "cheeky bastard" is less offensive than the simple term "bastard". Here is the link:

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Cheeky%20Bastard

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Connotation, connotation, connotation.

Compounding a profanity puts it in context.


Shit is a striking word that can be used in a broad range of contexts – and therefore innuendo, inflection and sub/common-culture can leverage lots of meaning into the word's usage.

The word Bullshit derives from a pragmatic, unavoidable part of life: that bulls (Bos taurus) generate large quantities of manure - shit, in the vulgar. The mundane dimension of the etymology soften the nature of the word. The word can be softened more among subcultures that are more 'basic' in their humor - such as ranchers, where the unsavory duties of managing bulls' shit become the subject of toil-lightening humor.

Likewise, in the USA, bullshit is 'softened' even further from its profane roots because of the stereotype of the long-winded, full-of-hot-air, big-talking Taxas rancher — a character whom can be seen as tragic, good-natured, and forgivable. "Shooting the shit" is a conversational style, typical to this stereotype, wherein exaggerated or otherwise-untrue story elements (thus, bullshit) may be told. Compare this to the range of vulgar usages of shit, or the german scheiß.


Clusterfuck is similarly softened from the 'bare' fuck because a clusterfuck is often an unfortunate, uncontrollable, or fated situation that is shared with others.

The interpersonal dynamics of the people involved in the clusterfuck stand as a major dimension of the meaning of being in a clusterfuck situation. The vulgar meanings of the fuck morpheme have very little presence to the ethical and tragic dimensions of a clusterfuck.

Again, the 'bare' fuck contrasts sharply - with the common meaning of [genital] penetration, often color by the root meaning of thrusting or beating/striking.

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