A reader asked:
I’ve never understood which swearwords are worse than others. It’s only in very recent years that I’ve heard people saying that the c-word is the worst of all. Before that I assumed the f-word was the worst swearword. Is there a pretty specific hierarchy of severity?
It depends on the context.
There are different kinds of swear words:
- Profanity based on religious concepts (“Go to hell”, “Goddammit”)
- Sexual or scatological swears (“Fuck off”, “shit”)
- Then there are slurs that derive their power from invoking hatred of a particular group (eg, the n-word, the r-word, the t-word and the g-word (I don’t like to spell out slurs – if you don’t know which words I mean, send me a message and I’ll tell you).
There is also some ambiguity:
- Sexual swears have substantial overlap with misogynist or homophobic slurs
- Telling someone to “fuck off” generally isn’t a slur, but telling someone they need to get laid often is
- Calling someone a bastard or an SOB tends to not be meant literally or intended to invoke stigma associated with being born out of wedlock. But it definitely has origins as a slur and is often still intentionally used that way. It’s the kind of swear word that is highly context dependent – in some situations it’s considered a fairly mild swear; among people who are regularly called those things as slurs it is *not* mild
- In the US, calling someone the c-word is a misogynist slur. I’m not sure that’s the case in other parts of the world.
Which type of swear word is considered more severe is heavily context-dependent:
- In secular culture, religion-related profanity is generally considered the mildest. That is not necessarily the case among religious people.
- Slurs properly *ought* to be considered the worst words, but they tend not to be. For instance, you can say them on television without bleeping in the US, but you can’t say most of the sexual and scatological swears
- But some people aren’t offended at all by “fuck”, but are extremely offended by slurs (that might be behind people’s reaction to the c-word).
A lot also depends on how the word is being used. There are a lot of nuances. For instance, here are some variations on the uses of scatological, sexual, and profane swear words:
- Saying a word by itself to express frustration or pain is one of the more mild forms of swearing (eg: dropping something on your toe and exclaiming “fuck!”). This is generally considered acceptable for adults, although the range of words considered acceptable varies.
- This is generally not considered acceptable for young children; the age at which it becomes socially acceptable depends a lot on where you are
- Using a cuss word to describe someone or their work is considered more severe (eg: “That’s a shitty piece of art.”; “People who think that’s ok can just fuck right off”)
- Actually saying the word to someone you think it about directly is the most severe form of swearing, generally speaking (eg: “Fuck you”.)
These words can get really complicated and confusing, and the rules are different in different places. It’s not just you – it’s confusing and context dependent.