Cognitive Daily

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.


  1. #1 Allison
    April 30, 2007

    For the more innocuous “suck”, I think that context totally matters. As you mentioned, using the word “cow” is not offensive, calling a woman a cow is incredibly offensive. “Suck” as a generic negative isn’t too bad. Just as “fucking” is a generic bad adjective isn’t all that offensive, but when you begin using them more like their original etymology, “Suck my [inoffensive by the standard of the survey] penis” you’re going to get your mother mad at you. Obviously most people pair “suck” with more offensive words. Likewise, if your son is saying, “Britney Spears sucks” that’s not nearly as offensive as telling a parent that he or she “sucks” or that his dinner “sucks”.

    It’s like one of my favorite Jack Handy jokes. “Mary was offended by my use of the word ‘puke’ – but to me, that’s what her dinner tasted like.”

    We know that there are such things as “bad” words and that some are worse than others. “Piss” is worse than “pee” although they mean the same thing and in a context would be similarly offensive. “I piss on your poem” versus “I pee on your poem” (although the latter makes me giggle). What’s fun is trying to explain to non-native English speakers the difference. I know, because when I studied Arabic, I required someone to explain to me what was so offensive of being call the “Son of a whore” – offensive, sure, but where’s the bad word? It doesn’t even sound as bad as calling someone a bastard.

    I have to say, though, depending on how your son is using the word (more like the generic “this thing is bad” use of the word suck) I would say that it’s only informal, not offensive.

    But then, I’m 23. And I have a dirty mouth.

  2. #2 Keely
    April 30, 2007

    I’m 18, and I read fairly regularly, but I wouldn’t say I’m exceptional. I just find reading blogs to be the best way to procrastinate on my homework.

  3. #3 acm
    April 30, 2007

    I’d guess that your teenage readers weren’t any more wholesome. Alternatively, I’d say that your language is shaded for your audience, and if you swore with your friends all the time, you might slip and swear in front of your parents and teachers (with negative consequences). I personally didn’t really swear until college (or at least, it was extremely serious when I did), but from then on my swearing went way up (and its seriousness way down)…

  4. #4 DartingStar
    April 30, 2007

    “Suck,” as in “This sucks!” derives from work/athletic effort so exhausting as to cause the animal/person to literally “suck wind!” It had no sexual connotation what so ever until public sexuality became more blatant.

    I have no experience here, but I’m guessing that falletio does not involve actual sucking? It is similar to the miss application of “cock” to the penis. The penis looks nothing like a cock’s comb. However, the female labia do very much so. The word “cock” initially described female external genitalia.

  5. #5 Aldo Manuzio
    April 30, 2007

    I must disagree with DartingStar and ask on what basis this extraordinarily improbable etymology for the word “suck” is given. “Cock” was never used to describe female genitalia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cock” has meant rooster since the 9th century, “male” since the middle of the 16th, and “penis” since the early 1700s. It has never meant female genitalia. The etymology of “suck” appears relatively evident as well: from cocksucker, a venerable homophobic insult in English. (Fellatio, by the way, primarily involves stimulation of the penis with the tongue and lips, but also the creation of a vaccuum in the fellator’s mouth by means of sucking–the phrase “blow job” is, however, a true misnomer.) Listen at any high school for the phrases “you suck,” “suck my dick,” and “cocksucker” being used interchangeably. I always understood the word in that sense–and so did my parents, which is why I wasn’t allowed to use it in the house.

    I wonder if the people who find it offensive–consciously or unconsciously–find it offensive for that reason. I think Greta is right: “suck” is “stealth profanity,” referring to a once-prohibited sexual act elliptically enough so that we don’t really recognize its offensive character. We assume that it is like “shoot” or “dang” or “frack”–a euphemism based on sound similarity to a prohibited word (“fuck”-“suck”) that often seems silly and even juvenile. In fact, it is more like saying “your mother,” a dirty phrase with the dirty word removed. Over time, however, Dave will win this argument: the word “suck” is becoming more and more removed from this point of origin, and many users do not (consciously, at least) recognize the connection at all.

  6. #6 amy
    May 1, 2007

    Since 2003, all consenting adult Americans have been legally allowed to have oral or anal sex, in private. (Supreme court, Lawrence v. Texas)

    [Dave responds: Thanks, Amy. I fixed the post!]

  7. #7 Chris
    May 1, 2007

    Didn’t it occur to you that younger readers might just be less inclined to admit the frequency of their curse-word use? They are, after all, almost always in the household and under the authority of someone who would disapprove of such use. (Similarly, being under that authority, and spending much of their time in supervised settings, could give them fewer opportunities to curse in the first place. It wasn’t a question about how often you *feel* like cursing…)

    It’s also possible that they simply lead less stressful lives, but remembering that period of my own life, that seems unlikely.

  8. #8 U
    May 1, 2007

    I’ve been mulling over the origin of “suck,” as it is used in “that sucks!” or “you suck!”

    I’m 25, and I have fairly clear memories of middle school in the mid-90’s, when the expression “sucks the big dick” became popular among myself and my classmates. But, I suppose, since “sucks the big dick” has an obvious, offensive meaning (not to mention hardly being proper conversation for 13-15 year olds), it was quickly shortened to “suck.” Even so, for quite some time after, I recall teachers being angered by our use of the word, owing to it’s origins.

    But the conversations about the word on this blog lately, make me wonder if the word “suck” actually had different origins in different places, and only later did people realize that they had all made up a new word with similar meaning?

  9. #9 DartingStar
    May 1, 2007

    CORRECTION: “cock’s comb” should read “cock’s wattles.”

    From English dialect “cockle, shell-fish.” The comparison to female genitalia is obvious.

    And, southern African-American dialect, “the vulva or vagina.” Again, the comparison to a cock’s wattles is inescapable.

    Never say never.

    Source: The Historical Dictionary of American Slang

  10. #10 acm
    May 1, 2007

    well, I hate to disillusion you, U, but people were using the phrase “that sucks” or “you suck” long before the mid-90’s (I can put it back a comfortable decade at least, and it didn’t feel novel then), so no, you and your friends weren’t part of the trend that “invented it.” but this does speak to the fact that most people using the term acknowledge the association to the sexual sense of “suck” rather than to its possible athletic derivation…

  11. #11 Jen
    May 1, 2007

    I remember being a kid — maybe about 10 at the time — and watching some Disney-channel made-for-tv movie. In one scene, a teenage boy uses the word “suck” and his parents scold him for it. I was so confused. I used “suck” all the time and I had no idea it was a “bad word” until that. Actually, (I’m 19 now), if I hadn’t scene that clip, I would probably still have no idea that “suck” was offensive when used in a non-sexual context (until this post, I guess). No one’s ever called me on it, and I’ve never seen anyone express offense at the word. Maybe it was where I lived? Maybe it was just the generational gap as you suggested? I hate to come off as someone so ignorant of the impact of their words, but I’ve just never had any real-life experiences of seeing “suck” being taken offensively.

  12. #12 Jason Malloy
    May 2, 2007

    The ranking for offensiveness doesn’t match up with censorship standards, which makes me doubt the accuracy of the poll. People have been allowed to say ‘bitch’ on TV and the radio for years, but not ‘fuck’. In general usage (as opposed to directed) people use it in public more as well (more like ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ than ‘shit’) which is another good test of validity.

    A good test that was excluded would have been the offensiveness of sacrilegious terms between age groups, it’s possible “God damn” could exceed ‘fuck’ for older groups. But this term seemingly began to slip into broadcast (radio/television) during the late 1990s for the first time, suggesting it is losing much of its potency.

  13. #13 Matt
    May 2, 2007

    I’m reminded of the time someone in my office wondered, “why isn’t there a specific word to mean ‘female dog'”. I had to let him know there is such a word, but I’m not sure its allowed to be used at work.

  14. #14 Scott Spiegelberg
    May 2, 2007

    For a while when I was about 9 I started using the word “Bastard” because I had read some books about Blackbeard. I figured it was in literature so it was okay to use in front of adults. Until I said it where my mom could hear it. Scratch off another adult-forbidden swear word!

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