Cognitive Daily

Last week’s Casual Fridays study was the most popular ever: Despite its grueling 58-question length, over 750 respondents completed the entire thing. We got so much data on foul language that I probably won’t finish writing all of it up today.

As you might suspect, in reporting these results it’s really impossible to avoid using the offensive words themselves, so if you think you might be offended, I’d recommend not reading any further. One thing our results confirmed, however: if you’re like most people who completed the survey, you don’t find most of these words generally offensive, so read on!

“Fuck” most popular, only moderately offensive
When I was a middle-school student, “fuck” was the ultimate bad word: you couldn’t get any nastier than “fuck.” Yet when we asked participants to rate eleven words for how generally offensive they were, “fuck” placed a lackluster sixth: just worse than “dick” and less offensive than “bitch.” “Fuck” also edged out “suck” for the most frequently-used word on our list.

“Nigger” most offensive, least popular
“Nigger,” by contrast, was nearly universally reviled. The vast majority of our respondents said they “never” use the word. “Nigger” also trounced “cunt” as the most offensive word on our list.

One thing I was hoping to learn from the study is how the reactions of black people to “nigger” differed from others’ reactions. Unfortunately, just 12 respondents identified themselves as black, so we don’t have significant results to report (respondents were allowed to select as many choices as they wanted for racial/ethnic background). The trend, however, was for black people to find the word slightly less offensive than white people.

Men versus women
Men found all the words significantly less offensive than women. Here are their ratings for general offensiveness:

i-c7d35480fa580f99d9080beec3600bb0-swear1.gif

[updated -- I messed up the significance calculations on my first try]
Because of our very large sample size (477 men and 230 women), some of those differences are significant. Women find “bitch,” “cunt,” “ho,” “fag,” and “nigger” more offensive than men. In general, it appears that women find words directed at oppressed groups: women, black people, gay people — to be much more offensive compared to men.

But what about usage? When it comes to actual use, in most cases there isn’t a significant difference between men and women, but a few of the differences do approach significance.

i-fd229275aecf4499102cd1ff4a153db0-swear2.gif

Women’s use of “bitch” is a little higher than men’s, and the difference does approach significance, even though women find the word more offensive. Men use “cunt” and “fag” more than women, but not quite significantly so.

Update: More analysis here.

Comments

  1. #1 Zeno
    April 27, 2007

    Golly! Now I can limit myself to the most popular bad words if I want to make an impression — except that it seems almost no one is impressed anymore. (Please excuse the expletive at the beginning of this message.)

  2. #2 acm
    April 27, 2007

    there might need to be some clarification — I could imagine, for example, that people might find “bitch” more offensive as a noun than as a verb. similarly, “fuck” is less offensive as an adjective than as an adverb than as a verb. or “suck” is less offensive when directed at the world/fate than at a person (that sucks! versus you suck!)…

    too much to manage, I suspect.

  3. #3 Libby
    April 27, 2007

    I gave up on responding to your study simply because the words themselves do not have universal single meanings. I have no issue with the term “cunt” referring to my genitalia, for example, a monosyllabic female counterpart to “cock,” less irritating than “pussy,” but I will be deeply offended if someone refers to *me* as a cunt. As a previous commenter pointed out, “bitch” is almost entirely inoffensive when used as a verb, but as a noun it can be a term of female empowerment or a gender slur, depending on speaker and context. “Ho” is typically a misogynist term, but younger generations are increasingly apt to use it in a jocular manner between friends. I get annoyed by “penis” as the sum total of the lyrics set to the melody of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” but it’s also a common anatomical term and I generally find it no more offensive than “end table.” “Fag” can mean cigarette. “Fag” can be a discriminatory verbal assault. “Fag” can be considered a word in mid-reappropriation by certain gay subcultures, a mere synonym for “out and fabulous.” I don’t even understand why “suck” is on the list. It’s a verb. A verb which describes the action of numerous appliances and feeding method of numerous organisms (humans included, if we think of popsicles and straws). It’s only offensive in particular phrases, such as “suck it” in lewd reference to an abuser’s cock, or perhaps more innocent phrases like “suck it up [and deal with it]” to more sensitive individuals. I have no trouble with “gay” in reference to either happiness or homosexuality, but I find it between moderately and very offensive when used as a catch-all adjective by immature minds for anything they look down upon. By and large, I found the survey options to be meaningless and therefore impossible to offer an honest reply to. If you decide to pursue this area of study further, perhaps more specific questions could be used to identify offensiveness within context. By and large, letters don’t hurt anyone. It’s their application which will make them objectionable (or not) to the majority.

  4. #4 Tim
    April 28, 2007

    The same could be said of any word list though. The word fridge is fairly inoffensive unless you tell your girlfriend she has the body of a fridge. By and large people will assume the word is intended to be used in the context in which they are most likely to encounter it. As such the results are meaningfull and valid. An alternate study would be to use full sentances i.e. “Fuck my cunt” etc, please do this i’d like to see the results.

  5. #5 dan dright
    April 28, 2007

    What? No analysis of poop-head or hiney-face? This is outrageous.

  6. #6 Garrett
    April 28, 2007

    As a recovering Southern Baptist, I got in tons of trouble when I was a kid if I said something “sucked,” even though I had no reason ever even suggested to me. It’s inclusion in this is definitely appropriate, if only because the social mores of psychotic Sunday school teachers deserves discussion.

  7. #7 Libby
    April 28, 2007

    “By and large people will assume the word is intended to be used in the context in which they are most likely to encounter it.”

    That works for your example of a fridge, but it doesn’t work for gay, fag, bitch, ho, etc. Among one social group, X word is mostly used insultingly. Among others, it is mostly benign. I don’t spend my entire life in the company of my grandmother, nor do I spend all my time chilling in the gay village, fucking my fiance, or conversing with all-religious or all-irreligious agemates. I move between these groups and activities. My objection is not a matter of saying X word is usually benign, apart from one exceptional context of evil; my objection is that these words commonly serve multiple purposes in multiple groups. There is no obvious distinction of “always offensive/not offensive at all except during a lunar eclipse on the fifth Sunday of May in the company of leprechauns.” Most words supplied are equally likely to be offensive or inoffensive to whatever degree, in my mind, dependent on unexceptional variations of context.

    And Garrett, thanks for pointing out the potential offensiveness of “suck.” It had completely escaped my notice. I suppose this means my DVBS days really are quite far behind me. ;)

  8. #8 richard
    April 28, 2007

    one thing i missed in this survey was framing the use of a word in a context. i found myself having to mentally “fill in” the context myself to be able to answer. for example, when asked about friends using the word, i assumed it would be intended in a friendly manner, etc.

    without knowing the intent of the person saying the word, it is difficult if not impossible for me to have a reaction that is a proper mirror of the utterance.

    another example: as a gay man myself, i have no problem with me and my friends referring to me as a fag. a stranger calling me that while spewing venom as i walk down the street holding my boyfriend’s hand and i will attempt to take them out.

    perhaps the next survey can somehow include intent, i think the results would yield even more interesting conclusions.

    but thanks, it’s interesting stuff.

  9. #9 Jongpil Yun
    April 28, 2007

    I may be alone in this, but since no context was given, I did what I assumed was the most reasonable thing — mentally creating the most offensive context I could think of, and going off that.

    Anyways, do you think you could publish the raw data for this study?

  10. #10 Piper Wison
    April 28, 2007

    “calling me that while spewing venom”

    I think that using curse words as signs of frustration, anger and talking ABOUT people is different than using curses to hurt other people. There are many people that will refer to a minority group, like homosexuals, as fags or queers when they are talking to their friends but wouldn’t actually insult a homosexual to their face by calling them a queer. Whether or not this is cowardly or simply politcal correctness doesn’t really matter in this scenario.

    When a person uses insulting terms AT another person, I believe that is “name calling”; like little children. I try to teach my children that calling someone a name is the same as hitting them. The only difference being the delivery method.

    Calling people names is provocative behavior; trying to get a rise out of the recipient. It is hostile and primitive.

    Now here is where I think I’m going to get a rise out of some of you. Most children, at some point will probably call their parents names. I learned from a wise woman long ago, that whenever my children call me a name, it means I am doing my job right. (Of course, this is only true if I don’t call them names.) I learned more recently that ignoring my children when they are trying to get a rise out of me is the best way to get them to stop. Consequently, they have called me names a few times, but the impulse died because it didn’t get them anywhere. This does NOT mean that I am okay with them calling me names. I just don’t rise to the occasion at the time. Trust me, it gets taken care of. muahhaaha

  11. #11 tekel
    April 29, 2007

    Interesting. I would have thought that “cunt” would be the most offensive word. But I suppose I listen to enough hip-hop that I’m somewhat desensitized to the negative connotations of “nigger.” My immediate reaction to seeing the word in print is to think “nigger, please,” which is used colloquially in many rap songs to mean something like “Sir, you could not possibly expect me to take you seriously given the opinion you have just expressed.” Given that context, my first interpretation of “nigger” is no more prejudicial or derogative than “dude.”

    This of course is a context-based interpretation. My reaction would be very different, hearing a white guy say to his white friends “hey, look at them niggers over there.” From my perspective, the word itself has been claimed by black culture in such a way that it is much less offensive to me to hear a black person use it. And it can have strong positive cultural acceptance connotations, depending on the user: if a black person were to say to me “you my nigger,” in an approving tone of voice, in that sense I might interpret “nigger” as a synonym for “brother” or “trusted partner.”

    In contrast, if a white person were to call me a nigger, it would simply be confusing- like calling me a broccoli. I would have no idea whether or not to be insulted, because they would be using the word in a way that was clearly inapplicable to me, and they would not have the cultural or social background to give the word proper context for me to understand their use.

    I find myself wondering about the racial breakdown of your survey respondants, and whether there is any correlation between racial identity and racially-targeted offensive words. I guess you’d have to reach more black readers to develop a significant sample… this probably tells us more about racial impact on internet usage, or even less directly, racial correlation with employment and economic status, than about whether black people think “nigger” is more offensive than “cunt.”

  12. #12 outeast
    April 30, 2007

    I suspect different people used different strategies to get around the lack of context. Unfortunately, this introduces a major variable which I suspect renders the findings invalid.

  13. #13 ben
    May 1, 2007

    you naughty boy, go west!

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.