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The phrase four-letter word refers to a set of English-language words written with four letters which are considered profane, including common popular or slang terms for excretory functions, sexual activity and genitalia, and (depending on the listener/reader) sometimes also certain terms relating to Hell and damnation when used outside their original religious context, and/or slurs. The "four-letter" claim refers to the fact that a large number of English "swear words" are incidentally four-character monosyllables. This euphemism came into use during the first half of the twentieth century.[1]

Common four-letter words (in this sense) that are widely considered vulgar or offensive to a notable degree include: cunt, fuck (and regional variants such as feck, fick and foak), jism (or gism), jizz, piss, shit, twat and tits. Piss in particular, however, may be used in non-excretory contexts (pissed off, i.e. "angry", in US English; pissed, i.e. "drunk" in UK English) that are often not considered particularly offensive, and the word also occurs several times with its excretory meaning in the King James Bible. Several of these (including even piss, despite its biblical pedigree) have been declared legally indecent under the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) TV and radio open-airwave broadcasting regulations.

A number of additional words of this length are upsetting to some, for religious or personal sensitivity reasons, such as: arse (UK), damn, fart, hell, wang, and wank (UK). Ethnic and sexual-preference slurs may also qualify, such as mong, gook, kike, spic and dyke. Several "four-letter words" have multiple meanings (some even serving as given names), and usually only offend when used in their vulgar senses, for example: cock, dick, knob, muff, puss, shag (UK) and toss (UK). A borderline category includes words that are euphemistic evasions of "stronger" words, as well as those that happen to be short and have both an expletive sound to some listeners as well as a sexual or excretory meaning (many also have other, non-vulgar meanings): butt (US), crap, darn, dump, heck, poop (US), slag (UK, NZ, AUS), slut and turd, as several examples. Finally, certain four-lettered terms with limited usage can be considered offensive by some, within the regional dialect in which they are used, such as mong and pish.

Occasionally the phrase "four-letter word" is humorously used to describe any word composed of four letters. This is the case when used to mean the word work, alleging that the speaker's or writer's audience treats work as unpleasant, or when the game of golf is noted as a four-letter word because the player's chosen entertainment pastime becomes an exercise in frustration.


Similar euphemisms in other languages

  • Dutch: A similar tradition occurs with "three-letter words", e.g. kut ("cunt"/"twat"), pik and lul ("cock"/"dick"/"prick").
  • Spanish: the word puta ("whore") is sometimes referred to as cuatro letras (four letters), for example, Esa chica es una cuatro letras ("That girl is a four-letter").[NOTE: this is not used in Spain]
  • Chilean Spanish: the phrase "el cuatro letras" (The "four letters") is often used as a euphemism to refer vulgar slang for the penis as there are many local slang terms consisting in four letters for that organ. Examples: pico, palo, mazo, pito, walo, ñaño, copi, nepe, niño, falo, etc.
  • French: the word merde ("shit") is sometimes referred to as le mot de cinq lettres ("the five-letter word").
  • German: the phrase Setz dich auf deine vier Buchstaben ("sit down on your four letters") is mainly used speaking to children, as it refers to the word Popo, meaning "rump" in baby talk. A variant, Setz dich auf deine fünf Buchstaben ("sit down on your five letters"), alludes to the vulgar use of the word Arsch, meaning "arse" (UK) or "ass" (U.S.).
  • Latin: a common insult used to be Es vir trium litterarum, meaning "you are a man of three letters". The underlying implication was that the addressed was a fur, meaning "thief", although if challenged, the speaker could always claim he simply meant vir, that is, "man".
  • Polish: the word dupa ("arse"/"ass") is called cztery litery ("the four letters")
  • Russian: the word хуй ("cock"/"dick"/"prick"), the most common obscenity, is called "the three-letter word" (слово из трех букв) or just "three letters" (три буквы)

The Tetragrammaton

Another meaning of "four-letter word" (in Greek, tetragrammaton) is the Hebrew name of the Abrahamic God, that is, י-ה-ו-ה (commonly transliterated as "YHWH", "Yahweh", and "Jehovah"), which Jews do not speak aloud, and protect when written (see Geniza). It is an example of the quadriliteral words of Hebrew.


Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four-letter words.
Writing prose,
Anything goes.

Cole Porter, "Anything Goes"

Use in titles

The fact that love is a word with four letters has been used in several popular songs, including "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word" written by Bob Dylan and performed by Joan Baez, "Four Letter Word" written by Ricki and Marty Wilde and performed by Kim Wilde. A television show called Love is a Four-letter Word was produced by ABC in Australia. The band Cake also made a play on words in their song "Friend is a Four Letter Word", while The Blood Brothers took their prose in a different direction with their song "Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck," which still stays true to the original meaning. In a song sung by Cilla Black and covered by The Smiths, "Work Is a Four-letter Word" this phrase is used to describe work as obscene. (Work Is a Four-Letter Word is also the title of a 1968 British comedy film, and That Four-Letter Word is a 2006 independent film from India.) Welsh punk band Four Letter Word formed in 1991, named themselves after the phrase, which in turn later inspired locals The Lostprophets to also parody the phrase in their song "Five Is a Four Letter Word". Jack Ingram's song "Love You", uses love as a play on another four letter word, "Yeah, I'm sick an' lovin' tired of all your lovin' around". Metallica uses the line "Love is a four-letter word" in the song "The Day That Never Comes" from their album Death Magnetic. The band CAKE's song "Friend Is a Four Letter Word" uses the phrase in a reference to rejection and the "just friends" stereotype. A Four Letter Word is also the title of a 2007 gay-themed movie staring Jesse Archer and Charlie David. R&B singer Raheem DeVaughan used the "love" meaning in his song "Four Letter Word" on his 2008 album Love Behind The Melody. Four Letter Word is also the title of a 2003 song by Def Leppard.

The "Seven dirty words"

A famous citing of a litany of four-letter (and some longer) vulgar words was in the US FCC's censorship of comedian George Carlin's radioplay of his comedy routine "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television", better known as the "Seven dirty words" skit ("fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits", in that order). Carlin later expanded the list in live and cable-televised performances to include over 100 words and phrases.


  1. ^ Ammer, Christine (1997). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. New York: Houghton Mifflin Reference Books. ISBN 039572774X.  

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