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In cartoons, profanity is often depicted by substituting symbols ("grawlixes") for words, as a form of non-specific censorship.

A profanity is a word, expression, gesture, or other social behavior which is socially constructed or interpreted as insulting, rude, vulgar, desecrating, or showing disrespect.[1]

The original meaning of the adjective profane (Latin: "in front of", "outside the temple") referred to items not belonging to the church, e.g. "The fort is the oldest profane building in the town, but the local monastery is older, and is the oldest building," or "besides designing churches, he also designed many profane buildings". Over time this meaning changed to the current meaning.

Other words commonly used to describe profane language or its use include: curse, pejorative language, swearing, expletive, oath, bad word, dirty word, strong language, irreverent language, obscenity language, choice words, blasphemy language, foul language, and bad or adult language.



Tape-recorded conversations find that roughly 80–90 spoken words each day—0.5% to 0.7% of all words—are swear words with people varying from between 0% to 3.4%. In comparison first person plural pronouns (we, us, our) make up 1% of spoken words.[2]

Research looking at swearing in 1986, 1997, and 2006 in America found the same top ten words were used of a set of over 70 different swear words. The most used swear words were fuck, shit, hell, damn, goddamn, ass, bitch, and crap—these eight made up roughly 80% of all profanities. Two words, fuck and shit, accounted for one third to one half of them.[2]

Types of profanity

Steven Pinker's book The Stuff of Thought breaks profanity down into five categories:

  • Dysphemistic profanity – which explicitly forces the listener to think about negative or provocative matter. Using the wrong euphemism has a dysphemistic effect. (Ex: "I have to take a shit")
  • Abusive profanity – for abuse or intimidation or insulting of others (Ex: "Fuck you, you fucking cocksucker!")
  • Idiomatic profanity – swearing without really referring to the matter. Just using the words to arouse interest, to show off, and express to peers that the setting is informal. (Ex: "Shit, I was pretty fucked up last night.")
  • Emphatic swearing – to emphasize something with swearing. (Ex: "I'm not going to do a fucking thing!" The word "fucking" emphasizes his refusal to do anything)
  • Cathartic profanity – when something bad happens like coffee spilling, people curse. (Ex: "Shit, my coffee just fell!")

According to Pinker, the content of profane language can also be broken into five categories of negative emotion:

  • The Supernatural – Evokes emotions of awe & fear. (Ex: "What the fuck is going on, here?")
  • Bodily effluvia & organs – Evokes disgust, since effluvia are major disease vectors. (Ex: "I'm gonna go take a piss.")
  • Disease, death, and infirmity – Evokes dread, fear of death or disability. These are words which are normally avoided or treated euphemistically. (Ex: "This dude's fucked up in the head" as opposed to "This man has Down syndrome.")
  • Sexuality – Evokes images of revulsion at depravity. Profanity of a sexual nature conjures images of illegitimate or exploitive sexuality, jealousy, or the speaker's perception thereof. (Ex: "You fucking dick licker*!")
  • Disfavoured people or groups – Evokes hatred and contempt. Such groups include infidels, the disabled (e.g.: gimp,), enemies (e.g.: sand monkey), or subordinated groups. These include racist words and/or insults based on gender or sexual preferences.

Profanity as blasphemy

The original meaning of the term was restricted to blasphemy, sacrilege or saying God's name (or an identifier such as "Lord" or "God") in vain. Profanity represented secular indifference to religion or religious figures, while blasphemy was a more offensive attack on religion and religious figures, and considered sinful.

Profanities in the original meaning of blasphemous profanity are part of the ancient tradition of the comic cults, which laughed and scoffed at the deity or deities.[3][4] An example from Gargantua and Pantagruel is "Christ, look ye, its Mere de ... merde ... shit, Mother of God."[5]


The relative severity of various British profanities, as perceived by the public, was studied on behalf of the British Broadcasting Standards Commission, Independent Television Commission, BBC and Advertising Standards Authority; the results of this jointly commissioned research were published in December 2000 in a paper called "Delete Expletives". It listed the profanities in order of decreasing severity, the top ten being cunt, motherfucker, fuck, wanker, nigger, bastard, prick, bollocks, arsehole, and paki in that order. About 83% of respondents regarded cunt as "very severe"; 16% thought the same about shit and 10% about crap. Only about 1% thought cunt was "not swearing"; 9% thought the same about shit and 32% of crap.

International auxiliary languages

Distinct international auxiliary languages usually apply different strategies to coin or borrow profane words and expressions.

In Interlingua, the fundamental criterion for inclusion is widespread international use, and this can be as true of a profanity as any other word or phrase. Thus, expressions such as cunno (cunt), merda (shit), and pipi (pee-pee) may be used in Interlingua. Culo (ass or butt) and its derivative incular (to butt-fuck) are also Interlingua expressions. Futer (to fuck) is used much as in English, e.g., "Fute te!" ("Fuck you!") or "Mi automobile es futite!" ("My car is fucked!").[citation needed]

For Esperanto, see Esperanto profanity.

Books and movies containing famous uses of profanity

See also


  1. ^ "Definition of Profane", emphasis on original, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, retrieved on June 5, 2007.
  2. ^ a b Jay T. (2009). The Utility and Ubiquity of Taboo Words. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4:153-161. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2009.01115.x
  3. ^ Bakhtin 1941, "introduction", p.5-6
  4. ^ Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich The Poetics of Myth (Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky) 2000 Routledge ISBN 0415928982 p.110
  5. ^ François Rabelais, Gargantua book, chap. XVII; In French the words mère de (meaning "mother of") sound like merde, which means "shit".Full text of Chapter 16, Rabelais and His World at Google Books.
  6. ^ Ellmann, Richard (1982). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 502–04. ISBN 0-1950-3103-2. 
  7. ^ "Art or trash? It makes for endless, debate that cant be won". The Topeka Capital-Journal. 1997-10-06. Retrieved 2007-12-20. "Another perennial target, J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," was challenged in Maine because of the "f" word." 
  8. ^ Ben MacIntyre (2005-09-24). "The American banned list reveals a society with serious hang-ups". The Times.,,923-1792974,00.html. Retrieved 2007-12-20. 
  9. ^ Raw Dialog Challenges all the Censors. p. 92.'t%20give%20a%20damn%20censorship&pg=PA92#v=onepage&q=frankly%20my%20dear%20i%20don't%20give%20a%20damn%20censorship&f=false.  Life Magazine: 92. 10 June 1966. 


Further reading

  • Edward Sagarin. The Anatomy of Dirty Words. 1962
  • Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue. 1990.
  • Sterling Johnson. Watch Your F*cking Language. 2004.
  • Geoffrey Hughes. Swearing. 2004.
  • Ruth Wajnryb. Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. 2005.
  • Jesse Sheidlower. The F-Word. 2009. (3rd ed.)

External links

  • Urban Dictionary: A slang/profanity dictionary with user-submitted definitions.
  • The Profanisaurus: A dictionary of profanities, aptly called a Profanisaurus, from Viz magazine with user-submitted definitions.
  • Video Games Suck: Example of a website that uses profanity for entertainment.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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From LoveToKnow 1911

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Simple English

Profanity is the act of using rude words. The adjective is profane. Profanities can also be called swear words, curse ("cuss") words, dirty words, bad words, foul language, obscenity or obscene language, or expletives. It can be called an oath, although this word also has a normal meaning of a "solemn promise".

Religious profanity is called blasphemy. The verb is to blaspheme and the adjective is blasphemous. Saying “God!” or “Jesus Christ!” as an expression of surprise or annoyance is considered by many people to be blasphemy, mostly because one of the Ten Commandments says not to use the Christian god's name "in vain" (without a good reason). Swearing oaths can also be considered wrong by some who follow Jesus' teaching against swearing oaths in the Gospels (such as Matt. 5:34).

A profanity usually refers to religion, sex, or bodily functions. These are things that people feel very strongly about. In some languages, such as French, there is more profanity about religion than most other topics. Russian has more about defecation and the lower digestive tract.

A profanity can be a word or gesture or some other form of behaviour.

Different words can be profanity to different people, and what words are thought of as profanity in English can change over time.

Whether a word is a profanity will always depend on the way people think. Some people will be offended by something, while others will not be. Words which should not be used are taboo words. Using such words is thought by some people to be a sin.


Opinions on profanity

Some people call profanity "crude," but some say that it is no cruder to say "damn" than "puke" (a word that is simply vulgar, but not a swear word). People who use profanity do not always mean to make anybody feel bad, and tolerance for different forms of profanity can vary widely, from person to person. Most often, using profanity is a verbal outlet for strong feelings (usually unpleasant ones), that might otherwise cause a physical reaction. At other times, some people may use profanity as humor.


Some people develop a mental condition where they use profanity constantly. This is called coprolalia. Many people wrongly think this is called Tourette's syndrome. Tourette's syndrome is actually a group of disorders that only includes coprolalia 15% of the time. The condition can be aggravated (made worse) by stress.

Common examples of profanity

Several of these words come from Anglo-Saxon or Norse names for body parts, and bodily functions. They came to be thought of as profanity mostly after the Normans brought French and Latin words for them to England.

Ass or Arse
The buttocks or "butt" (from Anglo-Saxon ears) of a human. Usages include "get your ass out of here", and "kiss my ass", which are usually considered mild. Ass also refers to donkeys, who were formerly called asses; "you are such an ass" comes from this usage.
(U.K. Arsehole) ― Anus; also used to describe an unpleasant person.
A term for a child who was born to unmarried parents, also used as an insult. Often refers to something or someone whose presence can cause trouble, or something poorly planned or made.
Testicles. Also used as an offensive term to describe something as "nonsense".
Means female dog or prostitute; but is usually a rude name for a woman who is considered unpleasant or demanding, or anyone in a servile position. Can also refer to a bad situation ("I had a bitch of a time"). Also used as a verb, meaning to complain ("they bitched about the problem"). By contrast, bitchin' (sometimes "bitchen") can mean something very good or pleasant ("a bitchin' car").
A vagina. Also used as an offensive term for a woman or man ("She's a real cunt") or "cuntface" or stupid "cunt".
A verb, meaning to condemn someone or something. It is commonly considered mild profanity, and is used to show disappointment or surprise.
A verb, meaning to have sex. Can also mean to cheat or steal from ("fuck over") someone, to interfere with ("fuck with") something or someone, or to cause harm ("fuck up"). "Fuck up" can also mean to make a mistake. It is often used as a meaningless intensifier, especially in the adverb form ("too fucking expensive"), ("What the fuck?"). Fuck is also used to describe someone under the influence of drugs and or alcohol("they're Fucked up"). A person may also be referred to as a Fuck. The many uses for fuck make it one of the most versatile words in the English language. For example, "That fuck Jonathon was so fucked up last night he fucked some fucking whore and got fucking gonorrhea. Holy fuck!"
The underworld, or a place of punishment in the afterlife for evil, according to many religions.
Jerkoff (also "jerk off")
Refers to masturbation. The noun is often written as a single word, while the verb is two words. Usually means a person who has bad priorities or reasoning, or the act of masturbating ("jerking off").
An insult that can be used for sex inside the family, but mostly used in the sense of Bastard.
An offensive word for black people. "Nigger" (or "nigga") is commonly used in popular urban black rap media, where it is used towards others in friendly or derogatory manner.
Own cake
A term for a woman's vagina.
She likes to eat her "own cake"
This term refers to urination, and can be used in the form "Piss off".
This term refers to the penis, and also as an insult for an unpleasant person.
This term refers to the vulva, and also to a weak man.
Feces; also a verb, meaning to defecate. As an exclamation, it is similar to "fuck". It can be used to refer to any object, although it is often used in reference to drugs (heroin or marijuana in particular), music, or a person's belongings. May also mean trouble, or annoyance by others ("I'm tired of this shit"). It can also mean very poor/of bad quality ("this music is shit").
A very offensive term for women (and sometimes men), similar to bitch. Usually refers to someone with loose morals, or who gives in easily to others, or puts their own gratification ahead of more important things. It is similar of calling someone a "ho" ("whore") or "tart".
Wank or wanker
See "jerkoff" above.
Often referred to as a slang of breast or to describe an unpleasant person

Profane gestures

These are mostly performed while facing another person, and can be meant toward them, or about them. These gestures are considered as strong as profane words in most cases.

Biting one's thumb
Performed by placing the tip of a thumb under the front teeth, then pulling the thumb slightly forward, with the fingers closed. Mocks the "thumbs up" gesture. Can be taken to mean "bite me", though it predates the common use of this phrase.
Grabbing one's own crotch
Also an invitation to "bite me", or to perform oral sex in a servile way.
Pretending to give fellatio
One pokes out a cheek with the tongue, while rocking a closed hand toward the mouth, at the same time. Indicates something or someone is a waste of time.
Pretending to masturbate
Indicates something or someone is a waste of time, or performs poorly.
Showing one's middle finger ("flipping the bird")
Understood generally to mean "fuck you".
Thumbing (or "fluting") one's nose
Performed by placing the tip of a thumb against the tip of the nose, then wiggling the fingers. Expresses contempt, or thinking that someone is foolish.
"Up yours"
One turns a forearm horizontally, while swinging the other fist and forearm around it. Suggests something being shoved into a person's rectum. If the middle finger is shown, it is a stronger form of "fuck you", or a suggestion of anal sex.

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