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Bad Words

Bad Words

As a child, bad words fascinated me. We were not a particularly proper or religious family, and my father used them freely. I learned them all, right along with “dog” and “ball”. However, I was not allowed to use them. Of course I did, whenever I could get away with it. They just felt so good bouncing off my tongue, sharp, bold, and well-enunciated.

Some call it a bad habit in polite society, but it is one in which I still indulge today. I am a lover of all words (except “moist”, because I’m not a psychopath). Since childhood I have taken the ardent position that there are no bad words.

Hear me out. It seems to me that some people are more offended by the arrangement of letters than the meaning of the words. My argument is best fleshed out by recounting a conversation I had with my mother as an adolescent:

Me: There are no bad words. They are all just letters and syllables, the same as any other word.

Mom: Well, they’re bad because they mean bad things.

Me: Feces, urine, buttocks, female dog are all synonyms for so-called bad words but they aren’t swears!

Mom: They aren’t nice words!

Me: Well I’m allowed to say them, what’s the difference?

Mom: Because I said so.

I considered that argument a mark in my win column. Even now that I’m a respectable adult, my opinion stands. But I nonetheless play by the rules of polite society and know when not to use these more colorful words. I do not permit my children to use them. I know strong language offends some people, and they wouldn’t buy my insistence that they are nothing but letters and syllables.

Last week Samantha Bee made headlines for calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt”. As I personally admired her use of the under-used “feckless”, and pondered whether someone could have feck or be feckful, the war broke out and the Twitter outrage machine cranked. Bee became the latest target of the “boycott! Fire her!” syndicate. Something about the “C” word makes it the worst of the worst, the unforgivable slur. The slang for female genitalia is the most terrible thing you can call someone, worse than the word for anus, worse than reducing them to a female of the canine species, and worse than suggesting a senator offered sexual favors in exchange for political donations.

Why? There is a valid argument that by calling a woman the “C” word, you are reducing her to a body part and a sex object. It is true that the word induces less pearl-clutching when used toward a man, which is pretty common in the UK. But unless all of Bee’s critics or Ivanka’s supporters are suddenly avowed feminists, that hardly seems a plausible explanation. More likely, it is outrage for outrage’s sake, an opportunity to point to a controversial figure and say “see? She used THAT word and thus is a terrible person and so are her supporters.” There was likely little to no thought about the meaning of the word or why they were so terribly offended by it. Ask them why they are offended, and you are likely to hear little more than “that’s a very nasty word”.

This isn’t a defense of Bee. I lament a general lack of civility in public discourse in which name-calling is the default. I merely wish to point out that this particular four-letter arrangement is not inherently more egregious than most others. Consider this: do we get likewise offended when a man is called a “dick”? It is completely analogous and yet exponentially less likely to evoke a visceral response.

I appreciate a large and varied vocabulary. Give me ten-dollar, multisyllabic words. Intermix them with the colorful four letter ones, if you are so inclined. Criticize people who use their public platform to degrade and humiliate others, if it bothers you.

But don’t rest your outrage on how the letters are arranged, for [email protected]#$’s sake.

 


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Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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54 thoughts on “Bad Words

  1. I don’t tell my kids that these words are bad. Rather, I try to teach them about appropriate context. It is really no different from why you don’t wear flip-flops and cutoffs to a formal wedding (which isn’t to say that there aren’t some weddings where they are appropriate). For my older one, the aspiring writer, I also discuss thoughtful versus lazy use of language.

    The Samantha Bee incident is actually a really good example of this point. The language she chose to use entirely derailed the thought she was expressing. This is a textbook example of a poor use of language.

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  2. I use the f word a fair bit, along with “damn” and scatalogical references. I don’t think I’ve ever used the “c” word in question. And I pretty much never call men dicks, and I’m bit scratchy about the fact that the latter is so much more acceptable than the former, seeing as how they are in parallel.

    I am also old enough to remember a time when I would hear people say, “watch your language, there are ladies present”. I don’t regret that’s gone, though I feel like there’s some people who didn’t get the memo. In that sense, this controversy is pretty welcome.

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  3. The C-word debate exists as it does now because the c-word was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It really could have been anything. W-word, B-word, you name it, Bee would have been drawn into the outrage, apology, no-need-for-apology-thinkpiece cycle.

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    • So $&%# those *%#[email protected]$& %#€$^*.

      I know you’re pissed off, but that’s no excuse for resorting to Perl.

      The much more obvious defense of Bee is that it’s much less of a problem for one woman to call another woman the c-word. I’ve seen at least as much of that as, “It’s OK if it’s going from right to left.”

      Less of a problem, but not necessarily no problem at all. There’s been a fair amount of debate crossing the boundaries of my perception among the anti-Trump quasi-coalition.

      Complaints from MAGAworld, too, but given their support of Trump their complaints are transparently and flagrantly dishonest, so I ignore them.

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      • (Note: pillsy is responding to a much longer comment I shortened a minute or two after posting. It got off-topic.)

        And the woman-to-woman thing may not be the shield you think it is. If Tomi Lahren called Bee the same thing, the nuance crew would not be out in force.

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          • It isn’t so much about holding them responsible for uncommitted sins as much as hauling out the boulder of salt I reserve to take for claims of offense that just happen to serve the political ends of the offended.

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            • …just happen to serve the political ends of the offended.

              There’s clearly no principle being applied in these periodic flare-ups. What bubbles up seems to depend on the news (or lack thereof) on any given day as much as anything else.

              If not for the Roseanne thing last week I doubt this would have ever risen above the din. IIRC that was the context of the Trump tweets. I can’t imagine anyone neutral much less ideologically hostile watches Samantha Bee. It’s tribal warfare and there’s no weregild to stop retaliation and escalation. What matters isn’t what she said, what matters is that there’s a score to settle.

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      • In the context of this post the the Bee episode strikes me a violating three unrelated principles.

        The first; the word cunt is “talismanic” in that there is no use of it other than ironic self-empowerment. What’s interesting is that this status is invoked and maintained by the cultural hegemons of which Samantha Bee is one (albeit maybe a small one). Perhaps we’re all the better for the absence of the word from our collective vocabulary; but it is transgressive if you willfully trot it out. And Bee violated the rule; in the wrong context, and per the second point below, aimlessly.

        The second; it would seem that Bee wanted (ought?) to call Kirstjen Nielsen a feckless cunt… after all, she’s the one in the clip responding to questions about separating children from people crossing the boarder illegally (at least that’s the small context we get from the clip)… perhaps that is the sort of feckless cuntery we get with Kirstjen Nielsen as head of DHS… but Bee goes on to talk about a much more sympathetic case of Asylum Seekers from the Congo being separated and imputing this both backwards to Nielsen (which is *probably* not the context of the clip) and forwards to Ivanka… which was not only aimless, but gratuitous…

        The third; iTrump is a purely gratuitous target… Bee singles her out for posting a picture of her with her baby – on a Sunday morning no less (I guess Bee couldn’t find one of her posting a baby with puppies and kittens) – and proceeds to launch in to a drive-by tirade implying that iTrump is somehow the architect and/or willing accomplice of Asylum policies; maybe she is… or maybe she’d be mystified like the rest of us what the reasons behind separating asylum families might be… we have no idea. But in this case, we’re all iTrumps… we all post pictures of our children, we all love babies, we all call a sort of Sunday truce, and none of us have any idea why asylum seeking families would be separated.

        So in JB’s 1,2,3 group model… its hard to see this as a win for any group. It violates the taboos of the first group, excites the second group, and makes the third group wonder about putting feckless poopie heads like Samantha Bee in charge of anything… I mean, what sort of feckless fellow she must think Kanye?

        All the while there’s a reasonable political point to be made about keeping families intact what’er the process entails.

        I don’t think we should fire Bee for something she said; I think y’all should pull her for not being Jon Stewart and doing more harm than good for whatever it is team Blue is angling for.

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    • The C-word is also a stronger insult in American English than British English. In British English, the c-word is a feminine equivalent of dick. Not a good thing but not that serious. In American English, it has a more political meaning because of the contours of American feminism and politics decided it so.

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  4. I don’t know about usage in the UK, but in the US of A men call men “dicks” or “pricks” all the time, but also, far less frequently, “cunts.” They are all insults, but they carry different shades of meaning. You can probably work out the differences.

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  5. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I made the mistake of watching the red band trailer for The Happytime Murders. (Watch at your own risk. I ain’t gonna link to it. If you watch it, it’s because *YOU* made the decision to google for it.)

    In the red band trailer, there’s a scene of a male puppet having an orgasm and he paints the walls of his office with silly string.

    After a moment of nervous laughter from the shock, there really isn’t a joke underneath. It’s just a puppet making a puppet version of an ‘O’ face and bellowing ‘O’ noises while the puppeteer underneath is spraying the walls of the office with silly string.

    Crudity and coarseness is like frosting.

    If there’s a nice cake underneath, then the crudity and coarseness can really add something to the point being made.

    If there’s nothing underneath, you’ve just got frosting. Nothing wrong with the occasional session just eating frosting from that can, mind… but there are so very many better deserts out there (perhaps even some with semi-decent calorie/endorphin ratios!) that nothing but frosting, as good as it might seem in the moment, pretty much always is a bad idea in retrospect.

    If the joke is funny because it’s shocking but it wouldn’t be funny the second time? Then it’s not funny.
    If the joke is funny because you agree with the person telling it but you wouldn’t find it funny if you were on the other side? Well… it’s probably not *THAT* funny. It might be funny… but getting “your side” to laugh at the expense of “their side” is such a low bar that it doesn’t really indicate anything.

    The funny jokes are the ones that make you laugh for a second anyway before explaining how “that’s not fair!” (rather than “that’s not funny”).

    Sam Bee’s joke was the equivalent of spraying silly string at the wall.

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  6. “Give me ten-dollar, multisyllabic words.”

    And I would say that the use of Feckless is just as much a part of what Bee was trying to signal as the use of C***. Why? Well, See You Next Tuesday has been used by many of the same political persuasion as Bee for quite a while now, witness every time it has been used against that paragon of feminist ire, Sarah Palin. The word is stale now, its use trite. She needed to up her game.

    But Feckless, now that is a good one to show that you are part of the Mandarin class, make no mistake about it! Bee has shown that no matter the words she uses (and c*** will get edited for rerun purposes), she has Right On ™ politics. Feminism (of actually engaging with women as people who have ideas, rather than just objects) be damned.

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  7. I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about using gendered insults – when you call someone a sex-specific body part, you’re by extension insulting all the people who have that body part. No different from calling a boy a “girl” as an insult. It implies that being a girl is an inferior thing.

    She strives for insults that insult only their target, not a whole demographic by association. I’m trying to keep that in mind myself now (well, mostly I strive not to insult people, but failing that I can at least try to avoid collateral insult).

    So e.g. calling a person a dick has an opposite meaning to calling them a pussy – one suggests an excess, the other a deficiency, of putatively masculine behaviour – but both have the same problem of reinforcing the whole sexist division of personality traits and expected behaviours. “Asshole” and “coward” don’t have that problem.

    And both words for the genitals, in reference to the genitals themselves and not the whole person, are fine and dandy in the right context.

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  8. I’m an avid user of “bad words,” so by the time my boys could talk, they knew all the good ones and how to properly use them. The work was in explaining to them when it was ok to use them and explaining to them that if they used “bad words” at school they were likely to get in trouble.

    The one spot where I’ve consciously made a change in my use of “bad words” is in using references to female sex organs to convey weakness–as in calling a guy a “pussy” because he can’t/won’t do something. Instead, I’ll point out that if you’re trying to convey weakness, you should really call the guy a dick. I mean, all you have to do is lightly brush up against a dick to cause pain, while “pussies” do things like give birth to people. It’s not even a contest.

    America seems to be the only part of the English-speaking world where the “C” word is forbidden. If you follow anyone at all who covers the English Premier League you’ll know that the “C” word is employed freely and often. In an America where “fuck” has lost it’s taboo, “cunt” may be moving into that space.

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  9. I wasn’t ever a heavy user of bad words, and finished breaking myself of the habit by the time I was a senior in college and was teaching. Generally, I use “Rats!” My grown son tells me that he and his sister learned to recognize the various inflections of “Rats!”. He claims there was one in particular that meant “Some kid has done something to tick me off and is in serious trouble!”

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  10. Me: There are no bad words. They are all just letters and syllables, the same as any other word.

    Mom: Well, they’re bad because they mean bad things.

    Me: Feces, urine, buttocks, female dog are all synonyms for so-called bad words but they aren’t swears!

    Mom: They aren’t nice words!

    Me: Well I’m allowed to say them, what’s the difference?

    Mom: Because I said so.

    I considered that argument a mark in my win column.

    So, the n-word is not a bad word? After all, it just means african american.

    Your argument seems to be that just because two words have the same semantic content, if one of the words is acceptable in polite society so must the other be. But, I seriously doubt that you really think that there is nothing wrong with using the n-word.

    Some words are bad because of their pragmatic content. The question of why some words but not other synonymous ones have this pragmatic content is not something that I can answer credibly, at least not in a short space. I believe it sometimes has something to do with the history of the use of the word.

    Or you might think that that the n-word has different semantic content than african american or black person. A plausible way of defending this view is to say that semantic content is not reducible to reference. This was Frege’s point when he talked about Hesperus and Phosphorus having different meanings even though they both referred (in all possible worlds) to Venus. But then if this is true, you can’t claim that cunt and vagina mean the same thing. And this is similarly true of any putative bad word and its polite analogue.

    There is an interesting question as to what exactly is conveyed (either pragmatically or semantically) by the use of a bad word that is not conveyed by the polite analogue. The right answer is likely to be something like disrespect. This sounds right for independent reasons and the upshot is that this disrespect is what makes those words bad.

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    • It is the difference between malum in se and malum prohibitum: one is bad inherently, by its nature: e.g., murder. The other is not evil but only “bad” because someone (the law, maybe) says so; e.g., jaywalking.

      My language is not crude or dumb. It is varied and colorful.

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        • Crude means unrefined, doesn’t it? Unfinished. Improvised. It doesn’t mean offensive or tasteless. So I guess if you think using a curse word means someone has a small vocabulary that could equate to unrefined.
          My vocabulary has never been described as limited. Some words just have an emphasis that can’t be matched.

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        • Not only is cussing rude by definition, it’s defined as saying words that are rude. It’s rude because it’s cussing and it’s cussing because it’s rude – the definition is circular, and it’s so just because we’ve agreed that it’s so.

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          • Actually, it’s not circular, it’s a description of reality. It looks circular because it’s consistent. I don’t know why, but nearly every society cordons off a set of words for when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or you want to convey sex vulgarly, or you want to provoke a fight. In other words, for low-thinking moments, typically moments of rage. We can change the particular words, but the impulse behind them remains the same. They’re mala prohibita.

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            • You’ve already more or less contradicted your earlier argument here, by listing a number of situations where those words are most appropriate.

              “I hit my dibbly-dooing thumb with this confounded hammer!”
              Thanks for the update, Ned Flanders.

              “I have serious doubts about the station of your birth and your general sexual hygiene.”
              OK, buddy, I’m just trying to drink my beer here.

              “Hey, baby, let us copulate with an unusual degree of abandon.”
              I’m just going to finish watching Jimmy Kimmel Live if it’s all the same to you.

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              • Not a bad argument. I still think that “ow”, not picking a fight, and anything in a Barry White voice can do the trick. It makes me think about the saying that character is what you are in the dark. I think that applies here, in the sense that character is what you do in your unguarded moments. Language does afford people low-character words, and it will as long as their are people of low character, but that doesn’t make such words reputable.

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  11. Where I hang out, fuck, shit, and damn are used pretty frequently, as long as it isn’t used to start a fight. Bitch can be used in the right context, as long as you’re with friends. C*** and n***** will probably kicked out, and maybe banned for multiple use. Those are really the only bad words left.

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  12. Let’s see….Roseanne looses a show over a series of non nasty words, Bee just has to apologize for a one nasty word.

    Makes me wanna say “hmmmm”. Perhaps the standards are different for some people…..

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  13. I have mixed feelings in these kinds of discussions. The “they’re just words in the English language” seems to me a lot like “why are you being so sensitive” or it doesn’t happen to offend me, so it doesn’t matter if it offends you.

    I think I buy into what Em says in a comment above about “malum in se” vs. “malum prohibitum.” Words aren’t bad in themselves. Still, if something is “prohibitum,” and we accept the legitimacy of the system that does the prohibition and the reasons behind the prohibition, then a word is indeed bad for most intents and purposes. I strongly suspect Em doesn’t use certain words, such as racist or anti-gay words, unless she does so ironically, by quoting someone else, or in the context of any personal circumstances that might soften the impact of using those words.

    “Bad” words can also signal an underlying badness. For example, I don’t think it necessarily counts as “abuse” if a parent uses curse words with their children. But if we grant certain contexts and ways in which the words might sometimes be used, they might signal a pattern of abuse. (Or not. I’m sure parents who never swear can be horribly abusive.) Similarly, if I’m working customer service and a customer starts swearing, I’m going to read into that a certain sense that that person is getting angry with me and I’m going to revert to whatever passive aggressive strategies I need to get through that interaction. Not all customer service reps act as I did, of course, but I that’s how I acted. And frankly, if a stranger were to come up to a woman and call her a c-word, I wouldn’t blame the woman for reacting at least a little defensively.

    Again, though, that has more to do with what the words say about an interaction or a context, and not about the words themselves.

    Consider this: do we get likewise offended when a man is called a “dick”? It is completely analogous and yet exponentially less likely to evoke a visceral response.

    I get the point and speaking for myself and almost all people I know, the answer is no, we/I don’t get “likewise” offended when people use that word, and I have used it, too. But I do get a little offended. Perhaps it’s because I work in a majority female environment (and when the issues are different, there’s a lot of respect the people there demand, and rightfully so, when it comes to being sensitive about gender and sexual identities), and that word is used occasionally in a casual way. Perhaps it’s also because of other developments in my life and people I’ve been around that I’m not going to go into. But it does bother me when it happens. At the same time, the d-word is not “as bad as” the c-word, and I don’t believe myself or all men singularly or unfairly put upon by some person’s use of the word. But I don’t like it when others use it.

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    • I have mixed feelings in these kinds of discussions. The “they’re just words in the English language” seems to me a lot like “why are you being so sensitive” or it doesn’t happen to offend me, so it doesn’t matter if it offends you.

      It’s all just words in the English language, and words in the English language themselves are all just a bunch of phonemes anyway. Any meaning depends on context and knowledge that both the speaker and listener bring to the conversation, and miscommunication is, more often than not, do to the speaker and listener having different contexts for a message and (usually) not realizing it.

      And some words are, in a context that most of us share, usually meant as a signal for certain particularly ugly sentiments. Stuff like white people using the n-word, or men calling women the c-word. The strong norm against using these words in this way reinforces the strength of the signal sent by flouting the norm, giving you a self-reinforcing loop.

      Calling men dicks is just not that sort of signal. The norm against using it that way is much weaker, it’s much less likely to be associated with similarly ugly sentiments, and at this point it seems to be barely a curse word, at least in my circles. All of this adds up to being something that’s more likely to roll of someone’s back, and if everybody involved in the exchange knows it….

      If everybody in an exchange doesn’t know or believe this, if there isn’t such a shared context, you often get accusations of over-sensitivity. I don’t think people pretend to be offended terribly often; I do think people are not always transparent about, or fully aware of, why they’re being offended. If you aren’t directly involved in a dispute, it’s genuinely more offensive for a member of your outgroup to insult a member of your ingroup than for a member of your ingroup to insult a member of your ingroup in exactly the same way.

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  14. Calling men dicks is just not that sort of signal. The norm against using it that way is much weaker, it’s much less likely to be associated with similarly ugly sentiments, and at this point it seems to be barely a curse word, at least in my circles. All of this adds up to being something that’s more likely to roll of someone’s back, and if everybody involved in the exchange knows it….

    In case it wasn’t clear from my comment, I agree. I’ve never said it was “just as offensive” as the other words. Still, if I find it offensive, I find it offensive.

    Otherwise, I pretty much agree completely with your comment, especially the last part about in-groups and out-groups.

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  15. Em, I’ve thought about this a little more and am now a little better able to pinpoint how I *think* I see this issue differently from the way you do. You suggest, and I think this is something most of us here, even those of us who are pushing back a bit, agree on: words exist only in a context and by convention. You seem to acknowledge that when you say

    But I nonetheless play by the rules of polite society and know when not to use these more colorful words. I do not permit my children to use them. I know strong language offends some people, and they wouldn’t buy my insistence that they are nothing but letters and syllables.

    And yet if the only way words/expressions can have any meaning is in context and by convention, then it still seems to me that in a given context and by convention words can have a “bad” meaning. In sum, no word is inherently, in some metaphysical way, bad. But some words can be bad in the only way that words actually do exist. So as I see it, there are indeed “bad” words.

    Maybe, however, the disagreements in this thread really boil down to disagreements on two other points. One point is that language that is offensive to one person isn’t offensive to another, and the disagreement is over what one rightfully considers to be offensive, with “rightfully” doing huge amount of heavy lifting for either “side” in the discussion. Another point is that one of the conventional rules for language/words is what register of speech we’re using. We speak to others differently depending on the situation and who our interlocutor is. We can still be “polite,” or “respectful,” and yet vary what we say and how we say it depending on if we’re talking to children, family members, coworkers, customers, complete strangers, etc. The same applies mutatis mutandis for being rude or offensive.

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    • And yet if the only way words/expressions can have any meaning is in context and by convention, then it still seems to me that in a given context and by convention words can have a “bad” meaning. In sum, no word is inherently, in some metaphysical way, bad. But some words can be bad in the only way that words actually do exist. So as I see it, there are indeed “bad” words.

      If I say, “you are full of excrement”, or “copulate you” or “what the copulation is this?” I have said essentially the exact same thing as if I had used the curse words. But nobody would argue I’ve used bad words. That’s my point. I may have insulted you but I did not curse, and that’s the distinction without a difference that I can’t reconcile.

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      • I have said essentially the exact same thing as if I had used the curse words
        I say I see it differently. When one says, “you are full of s—,” or “f— you,” or “what the f— is this,” one is usually not saying the same thing. One does not literally mean the person is full of excrement, or encouraging that person to be coercively copulated, or invoking the idea of copulation in order to better express one’s incredulity at that which they’re facing. The s— and f— words are actually different words in those situations.

        Now, I do agree that in your examples, “excrement” and “copulation” aren’t actually being used literally, either. So I do take the point that one can be insulting using those words. But the insult wouldn’t sting as much (and depending on the interlocutor, might not even be understood as insulting) because “excrement” and “copulation” on some level mean different things from how “s—” and “f—” are (usually) used.

        Finally, I should say that in my original comments, I moved directly from the words you were talking about to, for example, the n-word and other very offensive offensive words. You were talking about a more limited set of words and not necessarily the super-offensive ones. (You did mention the c-word, of course, but that fits in with your argument in a way that the n-word does not.). So my apologies for strawmanning your argument.

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