Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Vulgarity and Four Letter Words

  1. Mar 28, 2006 #1
    “Vulgarity is the conduct of other people, just as falsehoods are the truths of other people” - Oscar Wilde

    To start off I'd like to say that this is not at all a protest of PF guidelines nor do I intend for it to be an excuse for people to use 'vulgar' language. I would just like to discuss what we think of 'vulgarity' and why the concept exists in it's current state. I will be mainly discussing 'vulger' language but any one may introduce also such things as the 'vulgarity' of images and actions.

    In older times it seems that vulgarity was a function of class distinction and religious propriety. The religious aspect is rather obvious and straight forward but as far as class distinction I think there existed some hypocrasy. While a highly religious individual saw discussions of 'unclean' things to be unacceptable many higher class individuals did speak of such things at least to some degree. The only difference between lower class and higher class discussions of things such as sex was the vulgate. In fact a dictionary definition of the word 'vulgar' brings up entries specifically stating that 'vulgar' is the language of 'common people'. I imagine then that refined people supposedly used 'proper' terms while the 'vulgar' masses used mostly slang.

    Today the line between slang and proper words is quite vague and most 'vulgar' words are so old and commonly used that they could hardly qualify as slang anymore. On top of this it is very rare that the use of slang in and of itself is even considered vulgar. So why do we hold onto this notion of vulgarity still? One idea is that class distinction has obviously not vanished completely but I have another theory as well.

    I think that society intentionally creates and sets aside certain classes of words that are considered vulgar. I think that people want words with the power to titillate them and provoke others. Words that are common, frequently used, or clinical generally don't possess this power. Even know as the classic four letter words are becoming common place new much more graphic and extreme slang terms are coming into use most of which I seriously doubt your average adult is aware of.

    Ofcourse this is an American/Californian perspective. What are others experiences in other areas and cultures?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 29, 2006 #2


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    One interesting feature is that how the words place themselves on the scale from worst to almost tolerable is different from culture from culture.

    For example, in Norwegian, the strongest/worst vulgar words are "hell" and "devil" in various forms, with something like "you hellish devil" ("din hælvetes faen") being real nasty (only said in rage, typically).

    The equivalent English words are, I believe, regarded as relatively mild curse words.

    On the other side, I've gathered that the word sh*t is a very vulgar word in English, but that the Norwegian equavilents "skitt" (pronounced identically with the English word) and "bæsj" are relatively mild swear words.

    You can find gentlemen who might utter in mild annoyance/frustration something like "æsj og bæsj også" (perhaps best translated as "yuck and muck as well"), without seeming vulgar for that reason.

    Another word for the substance, "dritt" is used in "drittsekk" (literally, "bag of s**t"), which is roughly used when English would have used the word "bastard".

    The Norwegian word for bastard (i.e, someone born out of wedlock), "laus-unge" (loose kid) is no swear word at all.

    So, in conclusion, I'd say that the ranking of swear words is more "socially constructed" than that there is some absolute scale for the inherent vulgarity of the concepts.
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2006
  4. Apr 6, 2006 #3


    User Avatar

    Why is the F-word so bad? It seems maybe we feel sex is unclean.

    Isn't "bloody" (English) kind of like damn (American)?

    Maybe Americans aren't as scared of God as over in Europe?
  5. Apr 7, 2006 #4
    I was considering this likely to be a product of stronger puritan influence. The American culture developed mainly as a frontier culture where people were probably less concerned with piety and made up of more 'lowbrow' than 'highbrow' society. There also wasn't a Church (with a capital 'c') present.
  6. Apr 9, 2006 #5
    I don't understand how feces, poop, crap, and sh*t aren't considered equally vulgar words. Same with penis, d*ck, c*ck, etc. It doesn't make sense at all.

    According to American culture, words like piss, hell, bastard, and damn aren't really considered swear words while b*tch, f*ck, and sh*t are. It seems random sometimes what are considered the most vulgar and the least vulgar "swear" words.
  7. Apr 9, 2006 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Gold Member
    Dearly Missed

    Sure it's just random what the culture has come to stigmatize. You have to remember that the separate societies of men and women were stronger in the past than they are now, and that some words that were not considered bad between men were never used in front of women. Piss for example was not a word a man would say in front of his wife; he would say pee, from the initial, or some other synonym.

    In the Victorian era, "nice" women would not use any common name for a part of the body; even arm and leg were taboo. As things loosened up some words got accepted while others stayed taboo.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook