Cuss Me Out!

Why are some words deemed "dirty"?

by Auren Hoffman

What's in a word? I started wondering about this when I overheard an argument between a parent and a child over whether "DAMN" was a bad word. The kid said "damn-it" and his mother got mad at him. I did not write this column to argue the technicalities of curse words (though I think the word "damn" appears in quite reputable literature including Shakespe are), but I began questioning why any word is considered "bad."

In an ever-so-often-look-inside-myself, I began wondering why calling someone an "asshole" is any worse than anointing one a "loser", "jerk", "bore", "nerd", "phony", "liberal", "tool", "geezer", "loud-mouth", "stupid", "nutty", "womanizer", or "weird". In fact, I'd rather be called "asshole" than most of the other insults (except "nutty" -- I like cashews).

I understand that some words are repugnant and insulting, but why is saying "shit" when someone cuts you off on the highway any worse than saying "doody"? These are just words made up of letters. One four letter word should not be any better than another.

Random thought: Rearranging the word "SHIT" yields the conjunction "THIS" and the baseball term "HITS." The word "ASSHOLE" could become "SHO SALE" which is probably where Nike and Reebok got their inspiration to reduce prices. Rearranging the word "JERK" yields absolutely nothing of value. Coincidence? Hardly . . .

Random Thought (the sequel): If you really want to tell someone to fly a kite, just yell "PHA-Q" (another four letter word -- and a dash).

Insulting someone, not curse words, should be frowned-upon. Politicians get away with mud-slinging, beer-brawling, food-flinging accusations but if any of them ever uttered the word "fuck" in public, they'd be going the way of Gary Hart, Bob Packwood, and Dick Morris. Why? What's in a word? (Can't we all get along?)

To me, banning words seems quite counterproductive. If words were not identified as curse words, but rather as general slang words, they would go in and out of style. For instance, my progression for words that I use when I like something went like this:

None of these words are considered dirty (in fact, "fresh" is generally associated with cleanliness). But they are all slang for saying something is really neat. Curse words, also, are only slang. And if these words were not taboo in out society, a natural progression of usage would occur as well.

Take the current progression of reactions to inadvertently dropping something on your foot:

If the word "shit" was not considered dirty, we might see a more natural progression of the phrase used for a quickly induced foot-ache:

Without the curse connotation associated with the word "shit," it may become far less trendy. Attaching a stigma to curse words creates a demand to cuss (and there is certainly no short supply of people who want to act cool). No stigma, no demand. Get it?

Not all media frowns on curse words. Some Internet sites are doing their part to mainstream banned words (like "Suck" - it is not all in the word), but societal pressures are still strong. Slowly, however, these barriers will disappear because on the Internet, nothing is banned.

I realize that it is impossible to fight my logic and that my argument is more solid than an eight-day-old milkshake, so there must only be one question left on your mind:

What happened on January 26, 1990?

Auren Hoffman is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and now is a consultant with Kyber Systems (, an Internet database firm based in Berkeley, CA. Check out Auren's weekly column called SUMMATION (