This list is not comprehensive and is subject to revision.
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It is not my intention to be a censor, so it is my mission to edit sparingly. I hold strong opinions on a great number of issues and suppose that this is true also of those who would read what I write. Accordingly, my self-editing process involves toning myself down. I will ever strive to abide by my own guidelines even as I impart them to you. In no particular order:
Name-calling — This is a very tempting thing to do, and I would be less than candid if I claimed that I never engaged in it myself. Like profiling and other more-, equally- and less-subtle forms of discrimination, it saves time. However, it rarely is helpful in making a reasoned argument. If you’re trying to make a point, it would probably be best to avoid name-calling. For example, rather than saying, “Rush Limbaugh is an idiot!” say something to the effect of, “Here is something idiotic that Rush Limbaugh said,” and then, as best you can, quote him directly. Better yet, “Rush Limbaugh says a lot of idiotic things,” then list them. It shouldn’t be hard. Several of the words below fall into the broad category of name-calling. Please avoid especially them, but endeavor to avoid it altogether.
Fuck (or variants: fucked, fucking, fucker, mother-fucker, etc.) — This is a word that I have used myself sometimes. Still do. I used to work with emotionally disturbed teenagers and spent many a Happy Hour in the presence of high school English teachers. Ergo, I heard the word dozens of times daily, maybe even hundreds. Personally, I have nothing against its use, but I realize at the same time that many people find it offensive. There are also many people who are simply tired of hearing it or reading it. I therefore discourage its use except in limited circumstances:
- Directly quoting someone. Whaddayagonnado?
- Sparingly for emphasis, shock value, or humor.
- … uh…. I can’t think of another offhand, but I might be overlooking something.
Please don’t use it or its variant forms multiple times in the same sentence. It’s gratuitous enough in spoken form and sounds unintelligent. In written form, it’s clutter at best. That said, I once saw a bumper sticker (not on a car) that said, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck!” It wasn’t directed at anyone in particular and I didn’t take it personally. So, I got a chuckle out of it. But I can’t think of a context where it would work in an essay trying to make a reasoned point.
Shit (var.: shitty, shit-faced, shit-canned, etc) — This is one of the most versatile words in the English language. For the life of me, I can’t think of a justification for taking offense at “shit” while not batting an eye at “crap,” “poo,” “number two,” or even the more formal words, “excrement,” “fecal matter,” “manure,” or “solid waste.” “Shit,” I think, is the superior word. I believe it briefly and exquisitely conveys what its user wants it to mean. And if you’re offended by “shit,” well then, fuck you.
Piss (var.: pissed, piss off, pissed off, pissing, etc.) — When referring to urine or the act of urination, the clinically accepted words, I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why ‘pee’ is a socially acceptable euphemism while ‘piss’ is not. To me, ‘piss’ is the preferred word. It’s onomatopoeic.
When conveying a state of anger, ‘ticked’ or ‘ticked off’ seems to me to be trying to impose an element of politeness where politeness is not in order. If it’s my own emotion I’m expressing, I’m not ‘ticked,’ I’m pissed.
By the same token, doesn’t it sound unnecessarily silly to say two parties are engaged in a ‘peeing contest,’ or even a ‘whizzing contest’? Come on! It’s a pissing contest. Everyone knows that.
Bullshit (var.: horseshit) — Whenever I hear someone on TV say ‘bull,’ or ‘B.S.,’ or ‘balderdash,’ or ‘bullpuckey,’ or ‘horse-hockey,’ or some other watered-down version of the theme, I know that they’re only saying that because they’re on TV and are avoiding being bleeped or offending the sensitive ears of the viewers. But I know what they’re talking about and so do you. They are calling somebody out for being dishonest or hypocritical or evasive. I have no problem calling bullshit bullshit. (Hell, my wife frequently calls me on my own bullshit. It’s not pleasant for me, but she is entitled to honesty.) What I ask is that when you call out someone’s bullshit, back it up with an explanation of what the dishonesty or hypocrisy or evasiveness is to which you are referring.
Chickenshit — This has a completely different meaning from bullshit or horseshit. It conveys an added degree of contempt toward an offender for an act of cowardice; “chicken +,” as it were. It does not particularly reflect the degree of cowardice, whether minor or major or somewhere in-between, but rather the attitude of the user of the term. I don’t personally have a problem with its use, but again, if you call someone out for being chickenshit, state your case. Otherwise it’s just name-calling. See also “pussy” below.
Bitch — Of course, bitch is an acceptable word to refer to a female canine. I do not favor this word when directed at a person. When a woman is called a bitch, it has a sexist connotation that her behavior or demeanor is not socially acceptable, whereas those exact same behaviors would be acceptable or even expected from a man. When a man is called a bitch, it carries the double-whammy that 1.) he is less masculine, and 2.) the sexist notion that femininity is inferior. So please don’t direct “bitch” at a person.
But besides the dog example, when might it be okay to use it? I am okay with stuff like, “Work was a bitch today,” or “This traffic is a bitch.” I also like the term “bitch-slap,” as in “Any high official who testifies before a congressional committee and says something to the effect of ‘I don’t remember’ or ‘I don’t recall’ should be bitch-slapped on the spot.”
Cunt — Same sexist connotations as “bitch,” but I can’t think of any acceptable exceptions for its use at all. Yeah, if you use this word at all, you damn well better intend to offend. I will assume that to be the case.
Pussy — Curiously, I am more okay with this one. I sometimes refer to myself as a pussy. To me, it means someone who, when presented with an opportunity to stand up for oneself, especially to a bully, fails to do so. I can’t even count the times I’ve wussed out. If you think I’m wrong or hypocritical about this, you’re entitled to your opinion. Feel free to call me out.
Retarded (var.: retard) — ‘Mentally retarded’ used to be the clinical term for a person with severe mental challenges, but it has fallen out of favor as people use it as a pejorative. Sarah Palin, mother to a child with Down Syndrome, rightfully takes exception to calling someone ‘retard’ or using ‘retarded’ as a descriptive word for a person or an idea. It unfairly degrades people who are different. Unless you are writing of a fire retardant, please do not use this word in any form.
Nigger (var.: niggah, niggaz) — If you are Huckleberry Finn or one of his contemporaries, then I suppose it’s okay to use this word. But you yourself, by definition, would be fictional. If you are the author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and you are using the language common to the people living near the Mississippi River from a long-ago time descriptive of the setting, then I guess that would be okay, too. But then you would be dead for a hundred years. Here is one of the instances in which I part ways with Sarah Palin: She defended her pal, radio call-in show hostess Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who said “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger” to an African-American caller who was seeking advice on how to deal with racism in her neighborhood when she confronts it. Dr. Laura’s “advice” was to not be so thin-skinned, to get over it. They’re just words after all: They can’t hurt you. Dr. Laura naturally got considerable flak over this episode, and she resigned from her radio show, mind-bogglingly claiming that her freedom of speech had been infringed upon. Yes, Sarah Palin defended that. Though I wonder, not that I would do this myself, but what if one of her callers on the air called her “Kike, Kike, Kike” or “Cunt, Cunt, Cunt?” Would she take her own advice to not be thin-skinned, to get over it, they’re only words, they can’t hurt her?
How about making an exception for African-Americans who are in the exclusive company of fellow African-Americans? Personally, I do not make such an exception. Please don’t use that word.
Faggot (var.: fag) — This used to be a synonym for ‘cigarette,’ but now is almost exclusively used as a derogatory word for a homosexual, usually male. My understanding is that its pejorative meaning derives from a time when people were burned alive at the stake for homosexual behavior. I am gathering that the words, ‘queen,’ ‘queer,’ or ‘homo’ are gaining some acceptance, especially among the company of homosexual persons themselves, as well as referring to each other as the opposite sex of what they are, but I personally am uncomfortable using even those. ‘Fag’ or ‘faggot,’ on the other hand, are much harsher words and can only convey hostility. They are also used to insult heterosexual persons by association with homosexuality. One of Sarah Palin’s daughters (Willow, I think) called a peer ‘faggot’ on a Facebook post or comment. I wish that mom Sarah explained to her daughter that the word she used is unacceptable and discriminatory, but there is no report, nor reason to believe, that she did so.
Asshole (var.: ass, asswipe, asshat, jackass, etc.) — Here is a word that is gaining broader acceptance in culture, culture being defined as TV. I have heard ‘asshole’ on network television, one character on a drama program referring to another, as well as on extended cable channels. Sometimes it is still bleeped, but sometimes not. ‘Ass’ also properly refers to a species of the equine family and sometimes the connotation is appropriate to expressing a degree of stubbornness, a trait associated with donkeys and mules. Not all of the variants of ‘ass’ and ‘asshole’ mean the same thing. An asswipe is someone who is immature or less significant than someone else. An asshat, well, I’m not exactly sure. I think it has to do with a degree of silliness. It sounds funny, anyway.
Of course, ‘asshole’ falls into the broad category of name-calling, and I believe that I have already stated my position on that.
Prick (var.: dick, dickhead, etc.) — Despite its reference to a completely different body part, this is virtually synonymous with ‘asshole.” Really! Go figure! It is slightly more gender-specific. One would rarely if ever call a woman a prick or a dick. What kind of asshat would do that?
Cocksucker — Hah! You wish!
Isn’t this epithet so very passé? I think it degrades the person who says or writes it more than it does the person to whom it’s directed. I guess that could be said about many of the epithets listed here, or name-calling in general.
God (var.: goddam, God damn, God damned, goddamit, OMG, etc.) — Knowing that many will disagree with me on this, my personal take on the use of the word “God” (capitalized or not) falls within the acceptable range. My reasoning; ‘God’ is not God’s name. Uncapitalized, ‘god’ is a word that can refer to deities, named or not, from a multitude of religious traditions or mythologies, monotheistic or multi-god. Capitalized, the God of the Bible has a name, Yaweh (unless it’s Jehovah). Whatever God’s name is, it’s not God. But as I alluded, many people will take it otherwise. Many people are convinced that God is pleased as punch at our shout-out on our coins, currency and Pledge Of Allegiance. Personally, I don’t think God gives a shit. My God is bigger than that and is more concerned about how we treat each other than our puny human institutions. I would further argue that pledging allegiance to a flag, a thing, is idolatry. Christians should pledge allegiance to God. It’s the First Commandment. But I digress.
Jesus (var.: Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, etc) — To me, this is way, way different from casual use of ‘God.’ If you use the name of Jesus (JEE-zuss), please be referring specifically to Jesus of Nazareth, known to Christians as the Son of God. Using ‘Jesus,’ ‘Christ,’ or ‘Jesus Christ’ as an exclamation or interjection is not acceptable. The same holds true for Yaweh (or Jehovah), or Allah, or any other name that faithful people regard as the true deity. (Or a true deity as the case may be.) Whatever your impression of me may be, I am serious when I say please, PLEASE don’t blaspheme. Really. Truly. Seriously.
If you are referring to a Hispanic person whose name happens to be Jesus (hey-SOOS), don’t use his name casually or as an exclamation, either.
Hell — Is this still considered a swear word? Whenever I hear someone say “H-E-double-hockey sticks,” I think, “Oh, for goodness’ sake!”
Now, taken literally, telling someone “Go to Hell!” is as harsh a thing as you could say to anyone, if you think about it. Even worse than “Fuck you!” But as a swear word? Offensive? I don’t think so. Hell, I don’t see what the hell the problem is.
Damn (var: damned, dang, danged, darn, darned) — If you are offended by ‘damn’ or any of its variations, you really don’t get out much. Seriously.