Context. It can make all the difference in the world. The word “suck” can describe the action of a vacuum cleaner or a sex act that was illegal in the state of North Carolina until 2003.
Following our analysis of last Friday’s curse word study, several of the commenters pointed out that without the context for a particular curse word, it’s difficult to say whether or not the word is offensive. Heck, calling someone a “cow” can be awfully offensive in the right (or, should I say wrong) context.
There’s no question these people are right. Yet on the other hand, the U.S. government has often ruled that certain words are profane and should not be broadcast during certain hours on radio or TV, regardless of context. The Bono F-bomb at the Golden Globe awards is just one notable example. And if context was all that mattered, then we should have gotten the same results for each word in our study — but we didn’t. Some words, it seems, are offensive no matter the context.
If you’re ready for some additional analysis of our study results, using even blunter, potentially offensive language, read on.
“Nigger” is a prime example of a word that’s offensive in nearly every context. It’s such an offensive word that for me it feels wrong to use it even in a discussion of how offensive the word can be. That said, there clearly must be some contexts where “nigger” is more offensive than others. Take a look at this graph, for example:
We asked respondents to rate the offensiveness of all the words in a variety of settings. While “nigger” was usually the most offensive, its rating varied significantly based on the setting, with “work” being significantly higher than other settings. While this variation still doesn’t address our commenters’ concerns (they’re referring to the specific verbal context, not just the setting of the word), it does demonstrate that the context does matter. But why don’t our readers find “nigger” more offensive when it is directed at them? Probably because they don’t believe it applies to them: just 14 out of over 700 respondents identified their racial/ethnic background as “black.” What about words which are used as epithets for many of our readers? Let’s take a closer look at “cunt” and “bitch,” which can be used as derogatory terms for women.
For “bitch,” there’s not a significant difference between men and women’s ratings of the word when it’s used in a joke by a friend, but women find it significantly more offensive at work. When the term is directed at them personally, women find it even more offensive, but men find it less so. Here the context is different: for a man, being called a bitch seems almost silly, but for a woman it can be quite serious. Similar reasoning applies for “cunt,” although women find the word more offensive than men in every instance. “Ho,” not included on this graph for the sake of simplicity, followed the same pattern.
Another reason we conducted this study was a common dinner-table dispute in the Munger household. Jim contends that “suck” isn’t offensive language at all: certainly the word appears on television all the time, and not just in the vacuum cleaner context. But Greta argues that the word has a profane connotation and therefore shouldn’t be used in casual conversation; it certainly shouldn’t be used every other sentence, as Jim is wont to do.
But perhaps this difference in “suck” usage is nothing more than a generation gap. Are 40-year-olds more likely to find “suck” offensive than teenagers? Here’s a graph showing offensiveness ratings of several different words:
There is indeed a significant small positive correlation between age and offensiveness of “suck,” and a similar, somewhat larger correlation for “ho.” Meanwhile, “fag” and “gay” are less offensive for older respondents. There is no significant correlation between offensiveness and age for “fuck” and “nigger.”
Now take a look at frequency of usage for the same words:
This basically flips the offensiveness graph. As you might expect, there is a strong negative correlation between offensiveness and frequency of use for all the words. In the specific case of “suck,” you can see that older people use the word much less frequently than younger people, so the idea that a generation gap between older and younger people exists with respect to profane words seems quite plausible.
I do wonder about the apparent sharp rise in use of “suck” and “fuck” from the 18-and-under age range to the 19-29 range. We don’t have quite enough results for those numbers to be significant, but I suspect it might have something to do with our particular set of readers. Arguably, you’d have to be a rather exceptional teenager to be reading Cognitive Daily on a regular basis. Are our teen readers more “wholesome” / less prone to swearing than the average teen? Maybe in a sampling of the general population you’d find these words are used even more frequently by teens than by other age groups.
So does that mean Jim should feel free to pepper his every dinner-table comment with “suck”? I’d say not: he should recognize that his “old” parents might be offended and try to curb his usage.